Tahir Whitehead went from playing exclusively on special teams his first two years to being a full-time starting linebacker for the Lions in 2014.
But with some improved health in the linebacker corps, Whitehead’s starting gig is far from safe, so he’s approaching this offseason as he did his first two in the NFL.
“I just think I’m trying to be one of the guys to make the team,” he said. “Every year the goal is to make the 53-man roster, no matter what position you win.”
Sticking with the team is a fine goal, but a year after winning the strong-side linebacker job in training camp, Whitehead returns this year as an experienced defensive player as he tries to fend off 2014 second-round pick Kyle Van Noy for the position.
Last year, Whitehead — a fifth-round pick in 2012 — won the third linebacker job after Van Noy missed the first half of the season following core muscle surgery. In Week 3, middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, and Whitehead shifted inside, where he had never played.
Whitehead finished the season with 86 tackles, five for loss and two interceptions. From the weak side, DeAndre Levy was the team’s dominant linebacker with 151 tackles, but Whitehead played a key role in the Lions having the top run defense and the No. 2 overall defense after playing zero defensive snaps his first two seasons.
“I think it was an unbelievable experience,” Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “You can’t recreate game reps in practice, and by him having an opportunity to play as many snaps as he did — even though it wasn’t his primary, normal position — it helped him tremendously. He got in stressful game situations, he played well all year, he made calls, so I think that helped him immensely. He’ll be a better football player for us for it.”
After a handful of years with a perceived lack of depth, the Lions now have what appears to be a deep group of linebackers. Tulloch will return in the middle, and Levy is one of the top linebackers in the NFL. Whitehead proved he could handle a role on defense last year and said he’s a lot more comfortable in the scheme this year.
Van Noy, who was supposed to be a Day 1 starter, is healthy, and even if he doesn’t earn that role, he still has the skills to force his way into the game as a situational pass rusher, which he did during the second half of last year. Josh Bynes played significant snaps as Whitehead’s backup in the middle and can play outside. Brandon Copeland joined the Lions after impressing at the NFL’s inaugural veteran combine. And Julian Stanford and Travis Lewis have been reliable special teams players at times.
Based on what the Lions want on the strong side, though, Whitehead and Van Noy seem like the most likely candidates to play alongside Tulloch and Levy.
“We want a guy that’s obviously strong against the run, going to be able to set the edge, going to be able to give us a little pass-rush ability if we decide to rush him — which we will,” Austin said.
During the portion of organized team activities open to the media Wednesday, Whitehead played plenty of special teams. No matter his role, he’ll likely do more in that phase this season. As a middle linebacker, it’s difficult to be a core special teams player, but if he plays on the strong side, Whitehead won’t play as many snaps because of how frequently the Lions use their nickel package.
With two forced fumbles in 2012 and 2013, Whitehead became a top special teams player earlier in his career. He said players have to be “low key crazy” to play in the third phase, but the angles and spacing did help him when he joined the defense.
This offseason, Whitehead said he’s hoping to prove he can react to the run quicker and match up on routes better. If he can, it’d be surprising not to seem him maintain a defensive role.
“We’re a competitive group,” he said of the linebackers. “We push each other, we demand a lot from each other, so the way I’m approaching is the same as I have in recent years. Just focus on getting better and trying to help my teammates as much as possible.”