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Lions’ Whitehead will get shot to shine in middle

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Tahir Whitehead

Allen Park — In his first two NFL seasons, Tahir Whitehead didn’t play a single snap on defense.

By Year 3, he earned the starting job at strong-side linebacker with the Lions, but by Week 4, he moved to the middle. Whitehead was solid in the new position and part of the NFL’s second-ranked defense, but when Stephen Tulloch returned healthy for 2015, Whitehead lost his job there.

And with Travis Lewis playing well last offseason, Whitehead lost his job on the strong side to start the year. Then, over the course of the season, he started playing more, including spelling Tulloch in the middle.

With his performance the last two years, Whitehead convinced general manager Bob Quinn he’s capable of being a starting middle linebacker, and he’ll have a chance to prove he can handle the role in 2016.

“I believe it gives me the opportunity to utilize my speed, coverage ability, be in the middle of the defense,” Whitehead said Tuesday. “Over the last two years I’ve gotten comfortable with getting the call from the sideline and giving it to the defense, and that comfort level has definitely gotten better.”

Whether or not Whitehead becomes an every-down linebacker like Tulloch was remains to be seen. Even after Whitehead took over in the middle for the injured Tulloch in 2014, Josh Bynes played a portion of his snaps.

But, over the past two years, Whitehead proved to have the versatile skillset required for the position. He’s fast enough to cover tight ends and running backs and a good enough at tackling and diagnosing plays to help in the run game.

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Those skills helped earn Whitehead a free-agent visit with Tampa Bay last month, but when he made it to the airport, he learned that the Lions were re-signing him. With a two-year, $8 million deal, it looks like the team wants Whitehead to be a big part of the defense, especially with Tulloch due to be cut.

Whitehead didn’t want to talk about the mystery surrounding Tulloch’s roster status, but said he learned a lot about how to succeed in the NFL from 31-year-old. And even though Tulloch’s return last year delayed Whitehead’s starting opportunity, the younger linebacker liked having the chance to learn all three linebacker positions.

“At the end of the day, I put it on myself to know all three positions because obviously in the game of football you’re one play away or one sprained ankle away from the mix being jumbled up and you having to play another position,” he said. “I kind of put that burden on me to learn everything.”