With a compression sleeve on his left calf, nose tackle Michael Pierce moved around at Thursday's Vikings practice like a 340-pound defender who doesn't expect to miss much more time.
Pierce, the Vikings' top 2020 free-agent signing who opted out last season because of COVID-19 concerns, said he should be healed "soon" from a calf strain he suffered while training in Alabama this summer. After participating in defensive line drills, he's been rehabbing off to the side of practices while mending an injury that wasn't reported until last week.
"I actually injured it three weeks before you guys found out," Pierce said. "So it's doing a lot better, is a lot further along than what Coach and them expected. When I came back from 'Bama and started getting treatments, they were pretty shocked, so that's a good thing."
Coach Mike Zimmer said the Vikings training staff is "taking it easy" with Pierce with over six weeks to go before the Sept. 12 season opener in Cincinnati. Pierce said he wasn't taking it easy this summer when he got injured during agility drills.
"I was doing a little bit too much D-end stuff," Pierce said, "change of direction and all of those little things. We're going to peel back on that next summer, but yeah, I'm feeling pretty good."
Pierce was signed last year to replace nose tackle Linval Joseph. The two worked out together this summer, when Pierce said Joseph "gave me his blessing" as the new anchor in the middle of the Vikings defense.
It's been 18 months since Pierce last donned shoulder pads, in his last game for the Ravens in January 2020, and the anticipation is mounting as he waits on his calf strain to heal.
"It will be a little bit of nervousness, a little butterflies, but I think that happens at any point in camp," Pierce said. "Just anxiousness. I'll probably have to like pull myself back a little bit. I'm itching. If you can't tell, I'm fidgety, but once this calf gets to 100 percent, I'll be able to roll."
'I guess I'm getting soft'
Zimmer was asked how he's changed entering Year 8 as the Vikings coach when he quipped, "I guess I'm getting soft." He quickly found an example of his rounded edges when last spring, amid a leaguewide push by the player's union to lessen offseason workloads, he recalled a meeting with about 20 players to negotiate some changes.
Though he didn't want to slow practice tempo for everybody, Zimmer conceded to soft-shell helmets being used that would prevent head-to-head collisions along the lines.
"So I said, what I'll do is I'll take some of the pounding off the linemen," Zimmer said, "so C.J. Ham isn't going and blocking Anthony Barr on a lead weak at full speed in the spring. So, we took a lot out of that. But I told them what we're going to have to do when we come back here in the fall, now, [is] the lines have to earn their money."
Darrisaw remains sidelined; Hunter stands out
Thursday's practice saw the same four players, left tackle Christian Darrisaw (groin), center Cohl Cabral (undisclosed), kicker Riley Patterson (undisclosed), and cornerback Jeff Gladney, not participating. Only Gladney, whose grand jury date in Dallas County was scheduled for Thursday, was not present.
Four others — receiver Dede Westbrook (knee), cornerback Bashaud Breeland (shoulder), Pierce (calf), and tight end Shane Zylstra (undisclosed) — were limited. Defensive end Danielle Hunter has had no apparent limitations coming off neck surgery, which Zimmer noticed.
"I wasn't really closely watching him, but I sure did notice him," Zimmer said. "The first time we went one-on-one pass rush, he was going against [Brian] O'Neill, and it was amazing. So, I heard O'Neill ask him, he said, 'Danielle, what was that move?' And [Hunter] said, 'I don't know. It just happened.' He's just slithery and long arms and athletic; it's just different."
Westbrook's one-year contract with the Vikings is a veteran salary benefit deal, meaning the roughly $1.13 million value is higher than his cap hit ($987,500) for this season. It's a measure that allows NFL teams to sign veteran players with at least four accrued seasons to a minimum salary at a reduced cap hit.