Just like every Bills fan, Justin Zimmer thought he had turned the game around Monday night.
He had ripped the ball from Clyde Edwards-Helaire with the Bills trailing by six in the fourth quarter. Zimmer’s teammates recovered at the Kansas City 30. The Bills were going to have a chance to take the lead late.
Moments later, a replay review showed Edwards-Helaire had a knee down an instant before the ball came out. No fumble and, of course, no win.
“I thought I had it,” Zimmer said. “Then, I saw the replay and my heart sunk.”
It was still a breakout game for Zimmer. He finished with six combined tackles and 1.5 tackles for a loss. He was arguably the Bills best defensive lineman Monday night.
Buffalo rewarded him with a contract to be a part of the 53-man roster on Wednesday. League rules this season were possibly a part of that decision. Monday night was the second time Zimmer was elevated from the practice squad to the active roster on gameday. If the Bills wanted him to play a third time, he could not go back to the practice squad without being exposed to teams league-wide via waivers.
It doesn’t matter to Zimmer how he got there. He’s only played five NFL games in his five-year pro football career.
He wants his game to be as well rounded as possible. Zimmer works both pass rushing and run stopping skills constantly.
“I want to do as many things as I can to help me get on the field,” he said.
Zimmer is the pro football nomad fans rarely read about or see on the field. He originally signed as an undrafted free agent with the Rex Ryan Bills in 2016. Since then, he’s played in New Orleans, Montreal (CFL), Atlanta and Cleveland before returning to Buffalo this year.
He says he is getting better and the teams he has played for must agree. This is his third consecutive season with time on the 53-man roster. If he plays another game this year, it will be his first season appearing in more than two NFL games.
It’s hardly lifestyles of the rich and famous, even though friends congratulated Zimmer for becoming “rich” when he signed as a rookie with the Bills. However, he was cut by Buffalo before the season started and stayed out of football in 2016. He had to live off a small signing bonus for the next few months.
A life of battling for the last spot on the roster or the practice squad can be difficult. The call can come at any time for a football player looking for work. When the work comes for the player, the work is just beginning for his family.
“In terms of having to get up and move my life pretty often, that’s not very fun. My wife hates it, too,” Zimmer said. “She has to move our stuff most the time. They call you and you have to be there within a day or two. I’m out right away and she’s left to pack up all the house. That sucks for her.”
Zimmer has enjoyed living all over the country and seeing a variety of cities. The money may not be lavish, but Zimmer acknowledges it still is pretty good. He’s made about half a million dollars in the NFL since 2016, according to overthecap.com.
One of other benefits is exposure to a variety of schemes and coaching philosophies. Zimmer has been able to pick and choose the items that work best for him.
“It’s kinda been a blessing in disguise,” he said. “There’s not just one way to play D-line.”
In Buffalo, he’s valued an emphasis on getting off the ball faster. He’s never played in a system that stresses penetration so much.
The number one thing Zimmer brought to Buffalo on his own is effort.
“It’s something I’m the most proud of because that takes no skill and it’s something you have to do every day,” he said.
You’ll be stunned to hear that Zimmer was also a high school wrestler just like head coach Sean McDermott. He played two years of basketball before switching to wrestling because he was told it would help his football career. He was told correctly.
Zimmer wrestled at the heavyweight division, which can top out at 285 pounds. He only wrestled in the 235 pound range for most of those bouts and had to learn how to succeed despite being incredibly undersized. It’s a skill that comes in handy now.
“Using your hands, playing with leverage… that really helped,” Zimmer said. “I’m a smaller D-lineman now, so I have to play with leverage.”
Zimmer’s big game against the Chiefs was his first night game and his first Monday game. Every game for him is an opportunity to prove he belongs in the NFL. He called it a “nice experience”.
“It would have been better if we had gotten that win. That would have been awesome.”