Napa, Calif. — For Tahir Whitehead, Tuesday’s joint practice with the Detroit Lions felt, and sounded, all too familiar.
The former Lions linebacker spent six years with the franchise, practicing daily against the team’s offense and trying to stop running backs Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick from breaking big runs or catching passes against him. And when Whitehead failed in his assignment, he was sure those backs would let him know.
So as the first of the two joint practices between the teams wrapped up, there the three stood, playfully jawing with each other after the officials had ruled Lions rookie running back Kerryon Johnson had snuck into the end zone and prevented the Raiders' defense from going a perfect 4-0 in a physical, goal line segment.
“Oh man, nothing has changed,” Whitehead said with a smile. “When I was there, we did the same exact thing, going back and forth. It’s all competitive and we’re just trying to get each other better.”
Minutes later, Riddick would drop into the interview, mocking one of his former teammate’s answers and telling the group of reporters Whitehead still stinks.
“As you see, the love is still there,” Whitehead said. “They’re still my guys. Once we’re off the football field, I’ve been to a couple of the guys’ weddings this offseason. We still hung out. You create a lot of friendships playing this game.”
A fifth-round draft pick for the Lions in 2012, Whitehead proved to be a diamond in the rough, first as one of the team’s best special teams players, before proving himself as a capable and versatile defender in recent years.
After recording 242 tackles over the last two seasons, Whitehead scored a three-year, $19 million contract from the Raiders in free agency. The Lions, who changed defensive schemes this offseason and put an emphasis on getting bigger at the linebacker position, never appeared to show much interest in retaining his services.
That’s water under the bridge for Whitehead.
“We’re long past that, baby,” Whitehead said. “I’m here in Oakland. I feel good and I like the fit.”
Even though Whitehead is gone, the impression he made with the team’s younger linebackers remains. Both Jarrad Davis and Jalen Reeves-Maybin expressed gratitude toward Whitehead, who was the consummate veteran teammate.
“He was definitely a big help,” Reeves-Maybin said last week. “Tahir always looked out for the young guys, looked out for the room all together. He always talked to us, made sure our heads were good and helped us develop any way we could. That was definitely great having him here and I look forward to seeing him.”
For Whitehead, his willingness to mentor someone like Davis, who ultimately ended up being his successor, was an attitude he learned from teammates who similarly helped him out early in his career.
“Being a veteran guy in the league, having experiences, it’s a must (to help out younger players),” Whitehead said. “I had guys do that for me when I was a rookie, second-year guy — Stephen Tulloch, DeAndre Levy, Justin Durant. I feel like I need to pay it forward.
"It makes me feel good that they stood there and would say those things. That’s what it’s about. Whether they’re your teammates or standing on the other side, you want to make sure guys are doing well and continuing to learn the game.”
Lions vs. Raiders
What: First preseason game for both teams
When: Friday, 10:30 p.m.
Where: Oakland Alameda Coliseum
TV: Fox 2, NFL Network
Line: Oakland by 3