When the dust settled and the 2020 NFL Draft came to a close, it was easy enough to handicap who the favorites for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year would be. Most of those discussed as likely candidates to win the award – Chase Young, Isaiah Simmons, Patrick Queen – were names and faces already instantly recognizable and expected to succeed based on their stardom at the top programs in college football.

Few, save maybe the most hardcore film geeks or the truest believers in Carolina Panthers football, would have told you it could be Jeremy Chinn.

After all, what goes on with the Southern Illinois Salukis and who stars for them doesn’t exactly excite the college football media and their ever-powerful hype machine. And yet, Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, Chinn did something no NFL rookie has ever done before.

Not Joe Greene. Nor Lawrence Taylor. Not even Julius Peppers or Luke Kuechly.

On a third-and-8 to start of the third quarter, Chinn came swooping in to return a Kirk Cousins fumble forced by Zach Kerr the short distance back to the end zone for a 17 yard go-ahead score to give the Panthers the lead. Getting the ball right back, the Vikings tried to shake off the score by handing off to Dalvin Cook.

But in a mass of Panthers tacklers, Chinn ended up ripping the ball right out of Cook’s hands, bringing it back to the very same end zone where he had just been.

“I got to the pile a little late and he was already wrapped up, so I went for the ball and ripped it out,” said Chinn. “I think it ended up bouncing off somebody’s leg and landed right in my hands, so I just took off with it.”

In that sequence, Jeremy Chinn became just the third player in NFL history – the first in a Panthers uniform and the first in the league since 1948 – to score multiple defensive touchdowns in a single game. More importantly, he became the first player ever in the 101-year history of the league to score defensive touchdowns on back-to-back plays. And he’s also the first player ever to have more than 10 tackles and two defensive touchdowns in a single game.

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By themselves, Chinn’s two touchdowns were remarkable accomplishments – Most defensive players in the NFL, even the great ones, are lucky to score one touchdown in their careers. And in the big picture, Chinn outright forced himself into a Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation he already deserved to be a part of.

The stat sheet has supported the idea of a Rookie of the Year bid for Chinn: Through 12 games, he had piled up 87 combined tackles with five passes defensed, an interception, and a forced fumble – plus two recoveries for touchdowns – coming in Week 12. As of Sunday, Chinn is the NFL’s leader in tackles among rookies, leading a pair of first-round picks in Patrick Queen of the Baltimore Ravens (70) and Kenneth Murray Jr. of the Los Angeles Chargers (62).

Although Chinn is second on the Panthers in tackles behind veteran Shaq Thompson (84), the importance of him emerging as a sure tackler and one of the team’s premier defensive playmakers cannot be understated. For eight seasons, the role that Chinn is serving in now was one performed at an incomparable level by the one and only Luke Kuechly. When Kuechly suddenly retired in January, his absence threatened to leave Carolina with a gaping hole both schematically and emotionally in the middle of their defense.

Although Chinn isn’t at Kuechly’s level – no one is – his rise from the final pick in the second round of the Draft to a blossoming star has given the Panthers a point of pride, and something that opposing teams now have to account for. And that’s especially important considering that the 2020 version of the Panthers’ defense isn’t good. At all.

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After pitching a shutout against a Detroit Lions team that fired head coach Matt Patricia this past Saturday, the Panthers’ defense as a unit snapped back to their reality of being vastly inferior. At no point in the game was this more evident than when they were tasked with protecting a six-point lead and getting a stop to win a game they had led for the entire second half in a two-minute drill.

Unable to generate a lick of pressure on quarterback Kirk Cousins nor take away his targets, Carolina’s defense allowed Minnesota to march right up the field and score a go-ahead touchdown on a seven play, 1:05 drive.

“We didn’t get any pressure,” lamented head coach Matt Rhule. “… We’ve only been good on defense when we’ve been able to get pressure on the quarterback. We don’t really stop people the other way. We stop people by getting pressure. We just didn’t get any pressure. Didn’t pressure them at all. Didn’t bring any blitzes and they got the momentum, and they moved the ball down the field.”

Photo Credit: John Autey / Pioneer Press

Even with Chinn and the illuminating play of second-year edge rusher Brian Burns along with some other young pieces, the Carolina Panthers have a bad defense – though that’s no impediment to winning Defensive Rookie of the Year. Kuechly won the award in 2012 on a middle of the pack No. 18-ranked defense. But without Chinn, there is enough of a sample size and significant ammunition now to suggest that they would be much, much worse.

The rookie has already missed one game this season against the Kansas City Chiefs, and he was no doubt missed – Carolina allowed 33 points in what turned out to be a winnable 33-31 game.

In the leadup to Week 12, Chinn admitted that he’s had thoughts about the Defensive Rookie of the Year title as the prize comes more into focus. And those thoughts have been the product of his efforts to play at that sort of level – thoughts that began well before anyone ever seriously thought he could be one of the best first-year players in professional football.

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“That’s been a goal of mine ever since Draft Day. That’s something I’ve strived for,” Chinn said of Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. “I can’t say I expected it, but I knew I was working to get to that point.”

Photo Credit: Harrison Barden/Carolina Panthers

Despite his accomplishments on Sunday, Chinn had little to say after the Vikings game. The defense’s final drive meltdown left him with little opportunity to wax poetic about his touchdowns – instead he spoke in platitudes about finishing close games on defense.

“I feel like I say that all the time… we can’t let our opponent breathe,” said Chinn. “We’re playing good as a defense and we’ve just got to keep it going and put the nail in the coffin.”

Chances are, the Panthers are what they are defensively with four games left to play in an up-and-down first season under Matt Rhule and Phil Snow. As it stands, they’re a unit just good enough to make plays here and there, teasing that they’re putting it all together, but ultimately being just bad enough to crumble when it matters and be victimized by the speed and will of offenses they go up against.

What they aren’t, though, is a defense completely without any hope for the future.

In being the unit’s bright spot on Sunday, Jeremy Chinn validated his believers and surely gained many more. With more players like him with good instincts, toughness, and a nose for the football, the Carolina Panthers’ defense could eventually become one that wins their team games in the tradition of the franchise.

In the aftermath of a loss, the idea that the Panthers have hope on defense is a tough sell. But with a Defensive Rookie of the Year title for Jeremy Chinn, it would surely become much more convincing.

(Top Photo Via Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

Steven T
Steven Taranto is a professional writer for 247Sports who covered the Carolina Panthers full-time during the 2018 season and through the ensuing offseason. A 2015 graduate of Elon University, his work has also been featured at Motor Racing Digest and now with The Riot Report. Steven is a native of Eastchester, New York, and currently resides in Franklin, Tennessee. (Twitter: @STaranto92)