A slew of athletes from the local area have now wrapped up their rookie years in the National Football League. They have all had varying levels of success from a top candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year to not currently being rostered.
The most successful player in this group by far has been Jeremy Chinn. A former Southern Illinois University star, he has made his presence felt with the Carolina Panthers. He has impressed many around the league and betting odds place him as the second most likely to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award, behind Washington’s Chase Young.
In both October and November, the former Saluki was honored as the Defensive Rookie of the Month. He also broke the NFL record for most tackles in a rookie season for a secondary player. He racked up 117 total tackles, which surpassed Jesse Bates’s 2018 mark with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Chinn’s standout game was a week 12 battle with the Minnesota Vikings. He recorded a career-high 13 tackles and two fumble recoveries for touchdowns on consecutive plays. This made him the first player in the Super Bowl era with two fumble recoveries for touchdowns in one game. His two defensive touchdowns within 10 seconds of game time are also the fastest in the Super Bowl era.
In what now seems to be one of the best value picks, Chinn was drafted at the end of the second round at sixty fourth overall. He also signed a $5.2 million contract, with over $2.6 million of it being fully guaranteed.
Another player drafted in the second round was AJ Epenesa. A graduate of Edwardsville High School, he played his college years with the Iowa Hawkeyes. This year, he was drafted by the Buffalo Bills with the fifty fourth overall pick.
A highly touted prospect by many expert analysts, he has gotten off to a slow and steady start. Despite not appearing in their week 1 matchup, he has seen considerable time ever since. Playing as both on the defensive ends and on special teams, he has racked up 14 total tackles and 1 sack. The Edwardsville graduate also recorded a tackle during the team’s 27-42 playoff win over the Indianapolis Colts this past weekend.
His slow start can be partially attributed to his cutting of twenty pounds over the offseason to fit better as an NFL level defensive end. But he has quickly progressed already and has seen the majority of the defensive snaps for the team for the past few weeks. Epenesa looks set to continue his upward trajectory over the coming seasons.
Although he went undrafted, Matt Cole is another rookie with local ties. A graduate from McKendree, he was relatively unknown until he had a strong Pro-Day performance. This included a 4.48 40 yard dash time and a 37 ½ vertical inch jump.
Cole was originally signed by the Miami Dolphins shortly after the draft. Unfortunately, he was kept only as a practice squad player there. Later in the year however, he landed with the San Francisco 49ers. They signed him to a two year contract and activated him to their active roster.
He appeared in the team’s week 17 matchup against the Seattle Seahawks. Playing on half of the team’s special teams snaps, he saw considerable playing time. He racked up two total tackles in that appearance.
Another Edwardsville graduate to begin his NFL career this season was Nick Kaltmayer, who was signed with the Miami Dolphins but waived in late August. A pair of East St. Louis High School graduates have also had small success. Jeff Thomas, once a top high school recruit, signed with the New England Patriots but was eventually waived and Tre’Vor Wallace-Simms has bounced between the Jacksonville Jaguars active roster and practice squad. An offensive lineman, Wallace-Simms has appeared in three games and been on the field for three snaps.
An O’Fallon High School and Missouri graduate, Tucker McCann has also finished his rookie year. He appeared poised to take the starting kicking job for the Tennessee Titans, but then Stephen Gostowski was signed and took over. McCann was waived, but has since been signed to the team’s practice squad.