CHARLOTTE – When Jeremy Chinn was growing up thinking about playing professional football, he never dreamed he'd be playing it quite this way.
And his Hall of Fame uncle agreed, saying he's not sure Chinn has found his eventual home on the field.
For the time being, the Panthers' rookie is playing linebacker and playing it well, coming off a two-touchdown game against the Vikings and a pair of Defensive Rookie of the Month awards.
But former Broncos safety Steve Atwater, part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2020, said he thinks his nephew will eventually return to the secondary, where the Panthers found him at Southern Illinois before moving up to take him in the second round of this spring's draft.
"I think absolutely he's a safety," Atwater said. "I think with his speed, his build, his awareness, it's where he's natural.
"He's got the frame to play safety, and I think it's where he'll eventually end up."
Chinn's playing linebacker for the Panthers partly out of necessity (there were veteran options in the secondary that didn't exist in the linebacker room when he arrived), and partly because they want to capitalize on his versatility. So far, he's proven himself able to take on multiple roles with the coverage ability and range that makes him useful in many ways.
Asked about Chinn's eventual role, Panthers run game coordinator Al Holcomb just laughed.
"That's a great question, and it's a hard question," Holcomb said. "This young man is so early in his career, there are a lot of questions about how big he's going to be and how he grows as a player. We also have to see how the defense is shaped and how we develop a defense in Carolina, so we can't say definitively what the role is.
"What he is, is a modern-day NFL player, a guy who can make an impact as a second-level or third-level defender."
Chinn's listed at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds (and it's a narrow 220, probably closer to 217, as he still has a slight build), so the eventual physical demands of playing closer to the line of scrimmage could necessitate a change.
When he talked about his role models in the game and what he expected as he prepared for the draft, Chinn rattled off a list of names of guys he tried to sample from.
"Coming into the league, I planned on being a weapon," he said. "That's how the pre-draft process was, whether I would be an outside linebacker or be a safety, in college tried to show I could do both.
"Growing up, I watched everybody. I watched safeties around the league. I was a big Ed Reed fan, big Bob Sanders fan. Even before coming to the league, I watched guys like Derwin James, Jamal Adams, Tyrann Mathieu, I just tried to pick certain things from all their games. Harrison Smith as well."
You'll notice there's not a linebacker among that group.
Atwater himself felt a similar tug, and said when he was coming into the league after a standout career at Arkansas, he got similar questions about his eventual destination. One of the NFL's most ferocious hitters, Atwater said there were coaches who wanted him to become a linebacker, and in the modern game, he likely would have ended up there.
But Atwater, who was 218 pounds when he entered the league, eventually got up to 228 and said he was glad he didn't have to add more weight.
"There was some talk about a switch, but I'm glad I was drafted by a team that saw me strictly as a safety," he said. "I'm glad it worked out that way. . . .
"Because Jeremy's so slim and so fast, he has the ability to run down guys. I just think eventually, if he's going to stay at linebacker, he's going to want to add 15 or 20 pounds to help protect him against having to deal with offensive linemen and fullbacks."
The Panthers have had such conversion projects in the past. Thomas Davis was drafted as a safety from Georgia, and they were equally unsure about how to deploy him early in his career.
"He could be a Derrick Brooks-type linebacker or a Roy Williams-type of safety," then-coach John Fox said of Davis on draft day in 2005, setting a high bar. "The position is the easy part. The fact that we got an excellent defensive player is the hard part."
But at 6-foot and 231 pounds, Davis walked in the door with a broader base and carried linebacker weight more naturally. His game also became more of a fit there, as his run-and-hit style made him one of the top players in the league at his position, once he found it.
Of course, the Panthers aren't 100 percent sure Chinn has found his.
Holcomb was around for the latter years of Davis' time here, and sees a similarity to Chinn that transcends body type or job description. He also thinks the way Chinn has absorbed the responsibilities of learning so many roles has shown that he's capable of doing many things.
"Jeremy is an excellent football player, who is still learning the game at this level," Holcomb said. "He's learning a lot of different nuances, about our system and NFL offenses in general. But he's done a very good job in terms of preparation, and he has naturally good instincts for the game. That lends itself to him being able to do more things.
"Like Thomas was, Jeremy can be an eraser on the field, in multiple spots. He can run sideline-to-sideline, and our defensive system helps Jeremy with things he's naturally talented in, so it brings out the things he's very good at."
Now, it's a matter of doing them consistently, and for years to come.
When Atwater talks to Chinn about his career, he's emphasized the physical stamina he'll need for a long career, whichever position he ends up playing. So far, Chinn's off to a good start.
"The main advice I've given him is just to do everything he can to stay healthy," Atwater said. "That's in the weight room, in the training room, in the offseason, everything. Whether that's extra shoulder work, or acupuncture, or stretching, just whatever it takes to stay on the field."
Chinn said recently that he hasn't felt the demands of a longer NFL season yet, even though he never played more than 11 games in a year in college. Then again, he's a rookie, and learning every day.
Eventually, he might need to add some weight if he's going to stay at linebacker. Or he might settle back into his old position and not have to change his body as dramatically. Or, we could remember he's just 22 years old and may not be the size he's always going to be. If Atwater gained 10 pounds of playing weight over the course of a career, Chinn might also.
At the moment, the Panthers are not ready to declare anything, beyond how happy they are to have him.
View the best photos of Jeremy Chinn as he was named the Defensive Rookie of the Month for the second-straight month.