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Saints defensive lineman Justin Zimmer got lost in the shuffle, but he’s an athlete on par with the best

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Between navigating undrafted free agency, a tough training camp, harrowing roster cuts, and an uncertain tenure on practice squads, Justin Zimmer’s rookie year was difficult. But he might fit right in with the Saints.

ORCHARD PARK, NY - Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Justin Zimmer (63) lines up against the New York Giants offensive line during a preseason exhibition game at New Era Field.
ORCHARD PARK, NY - Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Justin Zimmer (63) lines up against the New York Giants offensive line during a preseason exhibition game at New Era Field.
Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Zimmer was a standout defender at little-known Ferris State, leaving few stones unturned and records unbroken in his tenure there. But Zimmer didn’t get the same predraft attention as other prospects last spring and had to wait until his pro day to work out in front of NFL scouts, including representatives from the Buffalo Bills and New Orleans Saints. Zimmer put on a show, which I’ll elaborate on below the jump, but still went undrafted.

The Bills didn’t put Zimmer on their active roster and the Saints eventually poached him off of waivers. He finished the year on New Orleans’ practice squad, and now has a shot at finding his place in the NFL. It will be interesting to see whether the Saints’ new highly-respected defensive line coach, Ryan Nielsen (formerly of the North Carolina State Wolfpack), can turn Zimmer into a big asset.

PITTSFORD, NY - Buffalo Bills rookie defensive tackle Justin Zimmer (63) signs autographs for fans after the first training camp session at St. John Fisher College.
PITTSFORD, NY - Buffalo Bills rookie defensive tackle Justin Zimmer (63) signs autographs for fans after the first training camp session at St. John Fisher College.
Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Had Zimmer competed at the NFL Scouting Combine in either 2016 or 2017 and posted the same results as he did at his pro day, he would have timed fifth among interior defensive linemen in the 40-yard dash with an official 4.91-second time. Even more impressive, Zimmer was the only 300-pounder to log a 1.69-second 10-yard split; nobody else broke into the 1.6-second range.

Zimmer is strong, too. The 44 consecutive reps he put up on the 225-pound bench press would have been 11 more than every other defensive tackle to work out at the combine the last two years. There are other lifts used to measure raw power, like squats and the hang-clean, and some teams have begun using pressure plates to see which players strike the hardest. But Zimmer set a new standard in the only publicly-available data.

No defensive tackles recorded a better broad jump than Zimmer, which identifies short-area burst. His 9-foot-9-inch broad would have been an inch ahead of the second-best (Larry Ogunjobi at 9-foot-8-inches) and almost half a foot better than the next couple of guys (Malik McDowell at 9-foot-4-inches, Eddie Vanderdoes at 9-foot-3-inches).

In the vertical jump, Zimmer’s 32-inch skyward leap would have been bested only by Arizona Cardinals first round pick Robert Nkemdiche (35-inches), Saints first round pick Sheldon Rankins (34.5-inches), Pittsburgh Steelers second round pick Javon Hargrave (34.5 inches), and Green Bay Packers fourth round pick Dean Lowry (32.5-inches). Zimmer’s jump was tied with Ogunjobi again and with Indianapolis Colts fourth round pick Hassan Ridgeway.

While Zimmer has mostly been an interior lineman in his college career and during his stint with the Bills, but he really shined at nose tackle and as the three-technique lined up outside the guards’ shoulders. The Saints have that role filled with Rankins and Nick Fairley, but could Zimmer be a viable pairing for Saints nose tackle Tyeler Davison? Davison is the only true head-over-center nose guard on the Saints’ roster, and having someone like Zimmer to spell him during games could get both athletes on the field without testing their stamina.

It’s hard to say what the Saints envision Zimmer doing. He profiles well as an edge rusher, but David Onyemata played well there behind Cameron Jordan last year as a very “work-in-progress” rookie. Between Onyemata and Zimmer, the Saints may have two of the most-athletic interior defensive linemen in the game. Hopefully they can find a way to coexist and destroy opponents for years to come.