After releasing former starting lineman Quinton Spain on Wednesday, the Buffalo Bills filled that open spot on the 53-man roster with defensive tackle Justin Zimmer. After it was reported that other teams were interested in signing Zimmer off the Bills practice squad, and with no game time call ups left for Zimmer after Week 1 and Week 6 appearances, the Bills decided to make the union official. It felt like two teenagers who have been seeing each other for a while now who needed someone else to nudge them into a relationship. Regardless, Justin Zimmer is officially on the active roster, and Bills fan should be excited about the energy and playmaking ability he can bring to this lackluster defense.
Justin Zimmer played Division II college football at Ferris State. Although a small school with only 11,000 students, Ferris State boasts the most national football players of any Division II school. With his promotion to the 53-man roster, Zimmer is one of four Ferris State players currently signed to an NFL team. Zimmer spent all four seasons playing for the Bulldogs in Big Rapids, Michigan. Zimmer actually started his career at inside linebacker before being shifted to defensive end. His entire youth career, Zimmer played middle linebacker, but his size at the college level suggested he move to defensive lineman. Zimmer had the strength and speed to play on the edge, but when NFL scouts suggested to Zimmer’s coach that he move inside to defensive tackle, Zimmer made the adjustment. His father, Larry Zimmer, said that the move to DT was partially focused on Zimmer’s NFL future and partially for his Ferris State family. The team was stacked with edge rushers but was short on interior linemen.
Ultimately, Zimmer recorded a total of 216 tackles, 26 sacks, and 48.5 tackles for a loss. He also found his way onto the box score through turnovers, recording 9 forced fumbles, and 1 fumble recovery. And how about this: Zimmer batted down 14 passes, blocked 3 kicks, and even tallied an interception. In 2013, he broke the school record for most sacks in a game, with 4.5. He also broke the single-season tackles for a loss record, with 26 in 2015. In his senior season, he tied the school record for most sacks in a season with 13. Zimmer celebrated two GLIAC Championship with his team as well. It was that sort of all-around and consistent play that rewarded him with three First-Team All-GLIAC selections, two Division II All-American selections, two Gene Upshaw Award nominations, and two Cliff Harris National Small College Defensive Player of the Year nominations. Zimmer, like most of Brandon Beane’s players, is intelligent as well. He was a three-time Division II Academic All-American. John Harris, from NFL.com, referred to Zimmer as “Michigan’s hidden secret.”
Despite his collegiate success, Zimmer was not selected in the 2016 NFL Draft. As a Division II athlete, it is not easy to get noticed by NFL scouts. Zimmer had done everything the scouts has asked of him, moving full-time inside to play as an interior defensive lineman. Zimmer is 6 feet 3 inches tall, 310 pounds, and turned 28 yesterday. At the NFL Draft, Zimmer was reported to be “a shade over” 6 feet 2 inches, 300 pounds, and 23 years of age. He is on the shorter side of defensive lineman in the NFL and many scouting reports claimed his speed was not up to far. However, Zimmer undoubtedly had incredible strength. At his pro day, he put up 44 reps on the bench press. The best recorded bench press at the 2016 NFL Combine was only 34. Zimmer may not have had pure straight-line speed, but he does not lack athleticism. Beane has emphasized this “game speed” over 40-yard dash times before. And just how athletic is Zimmer? Surprise, surprise, Head Coach Sean McDermott decided to bring in a guy with a wrestling background. Zimmer won a regional wrestling championship in his Junior and Senior year of high school in Greenville, Michigan.
But back in 2016, no team was willing to take a chance on him in all seven rounds of the NFL Draft. Finally, one team gave Zimmer a call: the Buffalo Bills. The defensive lineman signed with Buffalo as an undrafted free agent and spent training camp with the team. Unfortunately, he was cut while thinning the roster down to 53, but his NFL dream was jumpstarted.
After leaving Buffalo, Zimmer would spend time with 3 other NFL squads and 1 Canadian Football team. His perseverance and determination would shine as he floated around multiple leagues. He spent the 2016 NFL season on the New Orleans Saints practice squad. He attended training camp the next year in 2017, but was cut once again before finalizing the 53-man roster. Even with no NFL teams calling, Zimmer didn’t give up on his dream. This kid from a small town in Michigan had the work ethic of a mule. He just never stopped trying to get better and succeed. Justin Zimmer’s father, Larry, recalls a young Justin getting lift sessions in whenever he could, including early in the morning before school. That’s just “how he’s wired.”
He would spend half of the 2017 football season on the practice squad of the Montreal Alouettes. He was activated during the final game of the year and recorded a sack on his very first snap. Finally, the dream came true for Justin Zimmer. In 2018 he spent time on both the Atlanta Falcons practice squad and 53-man roster, where he saw his first NFL playing time in Week 3. When the Falcons tried to place him on the practice squad again in 2019, he was poached by the Cleveland Browns. Zimmer’s second and third NFL performances were in Week 16 and 17, respectively. Unfortunately, Zimmer was waived by the Browns a year later with a non-football injury. He entered free agency with only 3 games of NFL experience at the age of 27.
His ability to keep teams calling could also be traced back to his work ethic. Larry Zimmer mentioned that his son, Justin, takes about two weeks off all year in the offseason. “No matter how the season ended, even if he just got done with a Super Bowl, he would keep going.” His father mentioned that this determination is something he’s always tried to instill in his son from a young age. “When you stop working, that’s when you don’t succeed.” That nonstop attitude eventually landed him back in Buffalo.
When starting defensive tackle Star Lotulelei opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19, the Bills frantically looked for reinforcements. Almost immediately Justin Zimmer and Denzel Smart were signed to the 90-man roster. A few members of the Bills media team reported that Zimmer stood out in training camp. He ultimately bested Smart for a spot on the Bills practice squad. With the new practice squad rules in place, players are eligible to be called up from the practice squad to the active roster for a limited amount of game days.
Zimmer didn’t have to wait long, as he was active for the Bills Week 1 matchup against the New York Jets. When Harrison Phillips was listed as a healthy scratch in Week 5 against the defending Super Bowl Champions, the Kansas City Chiefs, Zimmer was once again called up. A couple of days later, following the release of Quinton Spain, the Bills decided to sign Zimmer to the 53-man roster to fill the empty spot. Zimmer has recorded 4 solo tackles, 6 tackle assists, 2 tackles for a loss, and 1 QB hit in just two games this season. That is more total tackles and tackles for a loss than the veteran starter at defensive end, Trent Murphy, has compiled in 5 games.
Most importantly, Justin Zimmer seemed like one of the only defensive players showing heart out there on Monday Night Football. This Sean McDermott defense has never looked so unenthused with the game of football. The juice and energy from the last three seasons is missing, and Zimmer proved with his two gameday performances that he can provide a spark every now and then. Another related difficulty for this Bills defense has been the inability to get into the opponent’s backfield. Zimmer has done that many times in his two games, much more than his 2 tackles for a loss suggests. He also was a split second away from forcing Clyde Edwards-Helaire to fumble. It is game-changing defensive plays like those the Bills have been lacking this year. A turnover at that point in the game could have given the Bills a massive, almost undeserving win over the reigning Super Bowl Champions. When the call was reversed, no one else stepped up to the plate. The Chiefs marched down the field and scored a game-ending field goal.
Zimmer will have an immediate impact on the team, but just how he fits into this defense in the upcoming games and into the future is still uncertain. Zimmer’s snaps in Week 1 came at the expense of an injured Vernon Butler, and in Week 6 he took the snaps of a benched Harrison Phillips. When Oliver, Phillips, Butler, and Jefferson are healthy and active, Zimmer may be inactive. Injuries have plagued this Bills team in 2020, so all four other defensive tackles being healthy at any given time is not a sure thing, and Zimmer is more than capable of filling in and making a difference. Beane also showed that he was not afraid of playing the hot hand. Zimmer, a 27-year-old UDFA, started over Phillips, a 24-year-old Bills’ 3rd-round pick and fan-favorite. And honestly, Zimmer was more of an impact in the Chiefs game than Phillips has been this season. Of course, Phillips is nursing an ACL injury from last season, so the fan favorite is not “done for” yet. In terms of the future, Zimmer would need to resign with Buffalo and make the 53-man roster once again. All four defensive lineman are signed through next year, as well as Star Lotulelei, who opted out of the 2020 season. Zimmer will have to show up and show out when given the chance, which is what he has been doing all year for Buffalo.
The Buffalo Bills are no stranger to practice squad players becoming starters. Buffalo Bills legend Fred Jackson, one of the most prolific running backs in Bills history, was first a practice squad player. Jackson is now a leader in the Western New York community. One of the most important aspects of finding success in Buffalo under Beane and McDermott is fitting the Buffalo mold. If a player is “too big” for the city then he is too big for the locker room. Bills coaches want players that reflect Bills fans, humble and hardworking. Zimmer fits that mold well. His father, Larry, said that Zimmer avoids the limelight. He avoids news articles, like this one, that are all about him. Zimmer is always trying to deflect the attention to the bigger picture, whether that be his hometown in Greenville, Michigan or the Buffalo Bills. Orchard Park is a great place for someone who is humble and driven to get better at football, which makes Justin Zimmer and the Buffalo Bills a great fit.
A phone interview was conducted with Justin Zimmer’s father, Larry Zimmer, for this article. Please show some Buffalo love and give him a follow @larryzimm4 on Twitter.