CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers rookie Jeremy Chinn worked a lot during camp with Christian McCaffrey and the star running back’s trainer. It sometimes turned into a contest over who could register the fastest maximum speed on their sensor.
“Whenever I beat him, he would look at me and say, ‘OK, Chinn, enough,’" Chinn said with a laugh.
Chinn is to the defense what McCaffrey is to the offense in terms of position flexibility and athleticism. He might be more valuable from that aspect.
The Panthers (3-6) can plug Mike Davis into the offense without having to change their approach, as they hope is the case again Sunday (1 p.m., Fox) against Tampa Bay (5-3) with McCaffrey likely out with a shoulder injury.
Carolina had to rotate multiple players into the lineup in last Sunday’s 33-31 loss to Kansas City to duplicate everything Chinn does. He was out with a knee injury and is expected to return to the starting lineup this week.
His absence limited defensive coordinator Phil Snow’s ability to switch schemes without substituting. And the replacements didn’t come close to duplicating Chinn’s productivity, giving up 10 catches for 159 yards to tight end Travis Kelce.
“I don’t know that any one guy can just [replace Chinn] because of his versatility," coach Matt Rhule said. “Jeremy is an impact player."
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Chinn has lined up at 13 different spots this season: left outside linebacker, right outside linebacker, slot cornerback right, cornerback slot left, right inside linebacker, left inside linebacker, free safety, cornerback wide left, right defensive tackle, left defensive tackle, cornerback wide right, middle linebacker and nose tackle.
He’s a hybrid in the truest sense, and showing just why the Panthers traded up to get the former Southern Illinois star in the second round.
They saw a strength in what some teams saw as a weakness because Chinn couldn’t be defined by one position.
Chinn has become a top candidate for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He leads all rookies in tackles with 66, which is 14 more than Baltimore linebacker Patrick Queen, the 28th overall pick.
Washington edge rusher Chase Young, the No. 2 overall pick, might be his biggest competition with 3.5 sacks and five tackles for loss.
“I really like Chinn," said Mike Tannenbaum, a former NFL executive and now ESPN analyst. “To me, his versatility really fits where today’s game is going,"
Panther fans can't scream "Luuuuke" after tackles anymore, as middle linebacker Luke Kuechly retired in the offseason.
But Chinn is having an instant impact that hasn't been seen since Kuechly burst onto the scene in 2012. Chinn's 66 tackles through eight games were the most by a first-year player since Kuechly had 77 in 2012.
“He’s a guy that pops off the film," cornerback Donte Jackson said.
What Jackson likes most about Chinn is his veteran-like poise.
“He’s rarely rattled," Jackson said. “He’s water, really. There’s a lot of young guys, at some point you’re going to be champagne. You’re going to be soda. When something goes wrong, you’re going to explode.
“He’s always level-headed."
Chinn credits his mother, Nichelle Thruston, for instilling leadership qualities that set him apart from most rookies. His high school coach, Rick Wimmer, recalled the day Chinn’s mother brought him to practice on crutches and said, “He needs to understand he doesn’t really need those things."
“I know she was tired some days and she worked late night," Chinn said. “But she always was the same person. One thing I take pride in is just raising, elevating the play of everybody on the field when I'm on the field."
Chinn’s impact goes beyond defense.
The Panthers faced fourth-and-9 against Atlanta and Rhule called off a fake punt after a delay-of-game penalty. Chinn, the up back on the punt team, noticed that the defense backed off and put the fake back on.
He took the direct snap and rambled 28 yards.
“He looked good running the ball," Snow said. “It didn’t surprise me what happened."
Chinn’s favorite play came against Chicago, and not just because it was his first NFL interception.
“Because earlier in the game I gave up that corner route and they completed it for a first down," he said. “I kind of made that adjustment and picked it off the second time."
Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians compared Chinn to Deone Bucannon, whom he coached in Arizona. Bucannon was a top safety prospect in the 2014 draft who morphed into a linebacker.
Chinn doesn’t know what position he’ll settle into -- or if he wants to settle. That’s why when somebody asks what position he plays, he answers, “defense."
“I don't really want any limitations to my game," Chinn said.
Like McCaffrey, much of Chinn’s training involves routines used by track athletes.
That Chinn sometimes is measured faster than McCaffrey during workouts shouldn’t be a surprise. His 40-yard dash time at the 2020 NFL combine was 4.45, slightly ahead of McCaffrey’s 4.49 in 2017.
On the field, NFL Next Gen Stats has tracked Chinn’s maximum speed on a play at 20.82 mph, which came in a Week 5 victory at Atlanta when he ran down running back Todd Gurley. Chinn also reached 22.05 mph sprinting on punt coverage.
McCaffrey's max speed is 21.95 mph, recorded on his 84-yard touchdown run in Week 5 of 2019.
Considering Chinn (6-foot-3, 220) is heavier than McCaffrey (5-11, 205), Chinn's speed might be more impressive.
Chinn is built much like his uncle, former Denver safety Steve Atwater (6-3, 218), one of the newest members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He was on pace to beat his uncle’s rookie tackle total (129) before missing Sunday’s game. At his current tackle rate, he’ll fall just short with 123.7.
Atwater predicted Chinn would make an immediate impact months ago.
“He’s faster than I was," Atwater told ESPN.com. “Much faster. The thing I like most is he’s not afraid to step up and put his body in the way and create a big collision."
It’s not about physicality when Chinn and McCaffrey get together. It’s all about speed.
And if the two decided to run the 100-yard dash, who would win?
“I’ve got to say me," Chinn said as humbly as he could. “I would have to say me."