Throughout Mike Zimmer’s tenure as an NFL head coach, we’ve seen him utilize defensive players after many deemed they were past their prime. Before his Minnesota Vikings days, Zimmer was the defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys (2000-2006), Atlanta Falcons (2007) and the Cincinnati Bengals (2008-2013). Zimmer seemed to gain production from secondary players who had taken a step back statistically at every stop.
In 2000, Zimmer’s first year as the Cowboys defensive coordinator, 31-year-old cornerback Phillippi Sparks had a career renaissance in what turned out to be his final NFL season. Sparks finished the year with five interceptions, up from just one interception in his last year with the New York Giants. Sparks also served as a veteran leader in the secondary for up-and-coming corners, such as Mario Edwards, who would help the Cowboys finish third in passing defense in the 2001 season.
During Zimmer’s one-year stint with the Atlanta Falcons, he made use of 34-year-old safety Lawyer Milloy. He finished third in tackles for the Falcons in 2007 and tied for second on the team in interceptions. Those two picks were the most he’d had in over three years. Even on a team that finished near the bottom in overall defense (29th), Zimmer was able to regain some productivity from Milloy as he neared retirement. Milloy spent one more year in Atlanta and two more seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, but he was never able to regain the productivity he had in Atlanta with Zimmer.
In 2008, Zimmer was hired by the Cincinnati Bengals, where he continued to bring in veteran secondary players. Such was the case with 32-year-old Nate Clements, who signed in 2011. He had a bounce-back year in Cincinnati, finishing second on the team in interceptions.
Zimmer also brought on Terence Newman, a 34-year-old corner who had spent his first four seasons with Zimmer in Dallas. He turned back the clock in Cincinnati. In his first season with the Bengals, Newman was fourth on the team in tackles and second in interceptions.
Newman was an instant-impact signing when Zimmer brought him to Minnesota. He galvanized the cornerback room, and the Vikings defense catapulted to fifth in the league. Newman finished the year with the most interceptions he’d had in four years and finished fifth on the team in tackles. Newman was instrumental in leading the younger members of the secondary, notably Trae Waynes and Xavier Rhodes.
As Zimmer enters his eighth year in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, he once again will sign a veteran secondary player to provide consistency to a wayward cornerback room. This offseason, the Vikings signed 10-year veteran Patrick Peterson. He was coming off a string of subpar seasons, and he was the most penalized corner in the NFL last season. Given how often Zimmer has made a signing like this and the success he’s had with them, Peterson stands an excellent chance to return to his All-Pro form.
Should Peterson bounce back, the Minnesota defense could once again be one of the best in the league. Among this list of older corners Zimmer has signed, Peterson is statistically better and by far the most accomplished. Zimmer has proven over two decades in the NFL that he has the ability to put older corners in positions and defensive schemes to succeed. He has leaned on them to bring along younger members of the secondary, and Peterson’s signing is no different.
Peterson is looking for a bounceback season and a career reset, while Zimmer is looking for a veteran corner who can provide consistency and experience to a young cornerback room. Zimmer’s focus on bringing in older secondary players at every stop has worked, providing consistency on the field and veteran leadership off it. Time will tell if Zimmer can add Peterson to this list of success stories.