Every year it seems, right around this time, a buzz begins to grow within front offices around the league about a particular safety. The freak athleticism and potential versatility of an otherwise under-the-radar prospect have him quietly ascending draft boards at a time when most draftniks and publications still portend a middling projection and, in some cases, as low as a fifth-round grade.
Go back and find the ratings and public scouting reports on safeties like Deone Bucannon, Keanu Neal, Byron Jones and Darnell Savage from past Februaries, prior to the scouting combine. None of them were percolating among the mock drafts and most didn't even feature in multi-round mock drafts around now in their draft years. Yet all also share something else much more significant in common – they were selected in the first round.
I wouldn't be shocked if Jeremy Chinn, from Southern Illinois of all places, is the next to join them. A player you will often find projected to be selected around pick No. 150 overall or so – and in many cases barely among the top 10 safeties in what is not shaping up to be a particularly strong or deep class – is earning much higher accolades in private, among NFL personnel.
I am aware of multiple teams who have a late-first/early-second grade on him right now, coming off a stellar outing against big-time prospects in the Senior Bowl, and that may well continue to rise.
If Chinn, a quintessential late bloomer who is just under 6-3 and a easily carries a chiseled 220 pounds, excels at the drills and interviews in Indianapolis next week the way many believe he will - given his rare combo of size speed coupled with high-end intellect (on and off the field) -- then he just might hear his name called among the top 32 players in April on Day 1 of the 2020 NFL Draft. And if not, it won't be a long wait on Friday, as Chinn prepares to make his mark as a rookie at the same time his uncle, hard-hitting former Broncos safety Steve Atwater, prepares his speech for his Hall of Fame induction this summer.
"It's a dream I'm living right now," Chinn told me this week between training sessions for the combine. "I'm just soaking up the process. I'm loving it, everything about it. I'm living my dream.
This is indeed heady stuff for a young man who not that long ago was barely recruited by colleges out of his suburban Indianapolis high school. He ended up Southern Illinois, a football program whose biggest product -- former Pro Bowl linebacker Bart Scott -- was an undrafted player, and has a relatively non-descript NFL history (40 players went on to the league including two former first-round picks).
Chinn allowed himself to think about one day playing pro ball at the time, but it seemed like a longshot at best when he arrived on campus as a converted corner (he'd also played a lot of running back in high school) who lacked size and anything close to a pro frame.
"I couldn't have imagined it was going as it's been going," Chinn said. "I always figured there could be some way to get some NFL opportunity when the time came. but you know the opportunity I have now at the combine is definitely a lot higher than what others projected for me as a high school athlete."
Chinn started to hit a growth spurt late in his high school career that carried into college and resulted in him added size, speed, and muscle mass. He became a starter as a freshman -- immediately picked off three passes -- and was a constant for the Salukis all four years, posting impressive tackling and passes-defensed stats, while also displaying a growing ability to attack the line of scrimmage and get after the quarterback that NFL teams are eager to tap into.
"I was definitely a late bloomer," Chinn said. "In high school I was one of the smaller guys going in, but probably by my junior and senior years I started to fill out a little bit. But it really took me all the way through college to continue to grow and grow, and I've just kept on growing."
Chinn has become an explosive athlete, who should shine when the stopwatches come out to assess his straight-line and lateral speed and acceleration next week. He has the mass to be a joker linebacker or fulfill a hybrid role on third downs, he has excelled as a play-making ball hawk playing deep downfield, and although he wasn't deployed that much deep in the box at the line of scrimmage, everything in his makeup – including a love of physical football likely inherited from his heavy-hitting uncle – would suggest he'll make an impact there as well.
"Growing up I would always google 'Steve Atwater highlights,' and watch his hit on (former Chiefs hulking running back) Christian Okoye," Chinn said. "I loved watching the type of player he was – a very physical player - and I definitely modeled my game around him growing up. And being able to catch up with him the past year about this process and the draft has definitely been really helpful."
Chinn left a strong impression with teams at the Senior Bowl, facing players of a caliber higher than most he faced each week at Southern Illinois, and there is no debating that he has a build and mentality well-suited for the pro game. Add in his affable nature and a 30 score on the Wonderlic, plus his positional versatility, and he checks all of the boxes on the checklist of characteristics that propel prospects much higher than what Mock Draft Nation would have you believe this time of year. He is the modern-day NFL defender -- a positionless but highly-athletic and explosive player who can fill a variety of different roles on any given snap.
"I think I helped myself at the Senior Bowl showing these NFL teams that I belong playing at that level," Chinn said.
Chinn's tape speaks for itself – with 13 career interceptions, including a career-best four his senior season, to go with 181 solo tackles and a handful of them behind the line of scrimmage. Expect to see him among the top five at his position on a lot of revised ratings by March, and, given the trends in the modern passing game, a player who ends up being drafts a whole lot closer to pick 25 than pick 150 by the time the draft rolls around.
"To be honest, it doesn't really matter to me if go in the first round, or go undrafted," Chinn told me. "At end of the day you have to prove yourself on the football field, and that's what I'm looking forward to doing. Just to get to that level and compete and show what I can do. I can't wait for that opportunity."