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Lions' Whitehead grabs producer's attention

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

The Lions have plenty of players who jump off the screen for viewers.

Wide receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh both have arguments for being the best at their position. Linebacker DeAndre Levy, free safety Glover Quin and wide receiver Golden Tate had exceptional seasons. And quarterback Matthew Stafford, defensive end Ezekiel Ansah and right guard Larry Warford all flash Pro Bowl-level talent.

But NFL analyst and NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell noticed someone else — linebacker Tahir Whitehead.

"I thought that he flashed pretty much every game I watched," Cosell said during Super Bowl week.

A fifth-round pick in 2012, Whitehead opened last season as the starting strong-side linebacker after playing exclusively on special teams in his first two years. After Stephen Tulloch suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 3, Whitehead moved inside.

Though he wasn't studying Whitehead closely, Cosell said Whitehead's sideline-to-sideline movement stood out.

"I think he's quick, he's active, he moves well," Cosell said. "I thought that he covered well. I just think he's a good player."

How impressed the Lions were with Whitehead could determine some offseason moves.

If officials believe Whitehead can play the Mike position, Tulloch ($5.8 million against the cap, savings of $3.2 million if cut) could be expendable.

But Whitehead's more natural position is the Sam, the outside job he won opposite Levy, the Will on the weak side.

"I don't know if he's a Mike," Cosell said of Whitehead, who finished second on the team with 86 tackles, two interceptions, five tackles for loss and five passes defensed.

"It all depends on how many snaps you play of your base versus your sub package. I don't think he's a 4-3 Mike if you're going to line up in your base defense and have to defend a power run game. But I think he's a really good sub package linebacker, and I think he's ultimately an outside backer if you're going to play a 4-3."

If Tulloch returns, Whitehead will have to fend off second-year player Kyle Van Noy on the strong side. Van Noy was injured during camp last season, which cost him valuable learning time.