Panthers continue to add to Jeremy Chinn's toolbox

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CHARLOTTE — This week, Jeremy Chinn is doing a different thing.

But make no mistake, the Panthers may never have Jeremy Chinn doing just one thing.

The second-year linebacker/safety hybrid has been hanging out with the secondary during the early phases of OTAs. That's an adjustment from last year, when he was primarily a linebacker out of necessity, but also because he was good at it.

He's not practicing fully this week as he eases back from an offseason knee procedure. But when they're on the practice field, he's gone from the tutelage of defensive run game coordinator Al Holcomb and the linebackers to hanging with defensive pass game coordinator Jason Simmons and the safeties.

"We've always said to ourselves, we can use Chinn as a safety and as a 'backer," Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said. "Because he's not fully participating right now, we have him doing a little bit more at the safety position just so he can truly learn it. And then we know once we get to training camp, ...

"I would anticipate us doing what we did last year, moving him around. I think when you've got a chess piece like that, you've got to utilize his versatility."

That will continue to be the plan with Chinn, though nature may eventually move him deeper into the defense. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, he's slighter than most linebackers, and the burden of more collisions can wear on a body over time.

That never appeared to be the case last year, when he led all rookies with 116 tackles, and became the first rookie since 2000 with at least 100 tackles, two defensive touchdowns, one sack, one interception, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, and one tackle for loss.

But his background is in the secondary, and Simmons was always convinced he would be an excellent safety if that's all he did.

"People always talk about his size and blitzing and his run support, but when he was coming out of Southern Illinois, I thought he was the best pure safety in the draft," the veteran secondary coach said. "I thought he had the best ball skills in his class. I remember seeing him high-point a ball for an interception against South Dakota and getting his feet down, and you could just tell the way he moved he was different.

"Really, he's a 6-3 guy who moves like a 5-10 guy."

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This week, Chinn's work is more mental, as Simmons works on small points of the game that would pertain more to a role in the secondary than a linebacker. He mentioned emphasizing "reading his keys" to anticipate what's coming, since a deeper role puts more pressure on him. Between that and being focused on angles, it's about making sure the smallest details are perfect.

"When you're on the third level of the defense, if your eyes aren't right, a 5-yard gain can become a touchdown," Simmons said flatly.

Of course, Chinn's ability to process information was a lot of the reason they put so much on his plate as a rookie. Holcomb raved about his grasp of defensive concepts as a whole, and as the entire staff works with Chinn, they all get a chance to add to his toolbox.

"When we're working with Jeremy, it's not even so much about our defense now; it's about offensive concepts and how they try to attack you," Simmons said. "Al's such a good teacher, and he's taught him football from the first level, the second level, and the third level. And Jeremy's a sponge. It's not even about how much he knows, but how much he wants to know. He wants to understand the why."

Of course, the question of where Chinn ultimately plays doesn't rely solely on what he's best at.

Rhule said part of the equation had to do with other young players having a chance to develop, specifically mentioning second-year safety Sam Franklin.

"If you feel like they're starting safeties, then we can use Chinn in a more hybrid role," Rhule said. "If we feel like he's (Chinn's) just that good at safety we'll keep him there."

And when the Panthers acquired linebackers Denzel Perryman and Haason Reddick this offseason, it gave them more flexibility at linebacker than they have in the secondary, which could also free up Chinn to roam deeper.

Of course, keeping Chinn in any one spot, no matter how good he is at any of them, would be missing the point. That allows the Panthers the ability to mix it up each week.

"You can take advantage of it most in terms of game-planning," Simmons said. "As coaches, you never want to put yourself in a box. What he does can be predicated on the week and the opponent.

"With all that he can do, it allows you to utilize the whole skill-set."

Chinn led all NFL rookies with 116 tackles and became the first rookie since 2000 (when press box tackle stats became official) with two defensive touchdowns, more than 100 tackles and at least one forced fumble, fumble recovery, sack, interception and tackle for loss.

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