One more intriguing name to sign with the Buffalo Bills this year was Division II defensive tackle Justin Zimmer. What makes this player from Ferris State worth watching? Let's break it down.
Born in Greenville, Michigan, Zimmer was an unheralded recruit out of Greenville high school. In high school he played linebacker on the football team, wrestled, and threw the discus and shotput for the track and field team. Zimmer was still growing into his body as a high school senior, weighing 235 pounds. Not blessed with blazing speed, he didn't receive any major scholarship offers, and ended up at Ferris State.
Zimmer redshirted his first season, and was playing middle linebacker in 2012 as a redshirt freshman, where he played as a reserve and collected two tackles. He switched to defensive line during the offseason, and something clicked with his size, athleticism, and scheme fit. As a full-season starter, he had 7.5 sacks, an interception returned for a touchdown, and forced two fumbles. He also set the record for single-game sacks with 4.5 versus Ashland.
His junior year was more of the same: 5.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, five pass breakups, and three forced fumbles. As a senior, everything came together in an even more impressive year: 26 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, four forced fumbles, a blocked kick, and five pass breakups.
Zimmer was a game-changer on the field for Ferris State, but he was also respected off the field. He was a three-time Academic All-American, the first such player from his school.
He didn't have any press when he started preparing for the 2016 NFL Draft, so he started his own. He contacted agents himself about representation, and attended a regional Combine when he wasn't invited to the main event in Indianapolis. His school didn't have a pro day, so he lobbied Michigan to let him work out at the Wolverines' pro day.
Zimmer finds his way to Buffalo thanks to a personal connection with defensive line coach John Blake. Blake saw him at a training facility in Texas, was wowed by his power (especially on the bench press), and advocated for the team to add him.
In terms of raw athletic talent, Zimmer arguably stands above every other defensive lineman in this year's rookie class. Look at his results from the regional Combine, where he had a 4.91-second 40-yard dash, 44 bench press reps, and a 7.09-second three-cone drill, among other workouts. That puts him right on par with a five-star prospect like Robert Nkemdiche, the difference being their collegiate experience. Zimmer is a shade over 6'2" and 300 pounds, with slightly short arms for a defensive tackle.
That said, athletic measurements don't always show up on tape. While I wasn't able to view any full-game cutups of Ferris State, a senior year reel of Zimmer offer some glimpses to his skillset on the field.
Run defense and block shedding
This is a bit of a question mark. Zimmer was rarely working against double teams in the highlight reels he posted to Hudl, and it's hard to ascertain how effectively he'd deal with a run scheme when adjusting from Division II to the NFL. He definitely has the strength to establish a solid anchor, but I believe more of his power is currently concentrated in his torso and arms than in his core; something that could cause issues against a double team. With his shorter arms and smaller weight, he's not built to two-gap on the defensive line.
Zimmer has the speed and power to shed blocks effectively, but his hand technique is very underdeveloped right now, and he was often able to win snaps just by projecting power and shoving his opponents aside. That won't work in the NFL.
Pass rush refinement and creativity
Very, very raw. The only technique of Zimmer's that looks close to being NFL-ready is his rip, but he could learn from watching Shaq Lawson execute the move. Many of his victories were a result of using his prodigious torso power to dominate physically outmatched opponents. He likely didn't face any 6'4", 325-pound offensive linemen in Division II.
Zimmer was used as both an interior pass rusher and as a rush end in college, and was productive from both spots. He can work inside and outside to make a play, and his versatility will be a bonus if he develops his pass-rushing technique further. Right now, it's likely that he'll hit a rookie wall until he becomes more consistent with his technique.
Fluidity in space
As advertised. Zimmer is phenomenal in this department, turning the corner on cutback runs, leaping over cut blocks to swat at a pass, and dropping into coverage like a player who weighs 270 pounds. If he has a free lane, you can feel pretty good about his ability to reach the ballcarrier.
Glenn Gronkowski and Eric Striker were the big names in this year's UDFA group, but I think Zimmer has a much better chance to become a contributing member to the roster (special teams not included). He's a rare athletic talent, and potentially the ideal backup for Kyle Williams. He has a lot to learn about playing his position in the NFL, but there's a small chance that he becomes a playmaker in this league.