As a fifth-round selection in 2012, Tahir Whitehead was more than a little surprised to be drafted by Detroit.
He wasn't one of the team's 30 pre-draft visits, and the only time he spoke with linebackers coach Matt Burke was at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Apparently that was all the Lions needed, though, as they used a 2012 fifth-round pick to move up and grab the Temple University product.
"(He's) by far the biggest surprise I've had in quite a while. I think Matt Burke and the scouts did a great job on him," Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said during last June's organized team activities.
"He's much better than a fifth-round draft choice. He is something."
When Whitehead came in as a rookie, the Lions' starting lineup was set with Justin Durant, DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch. Whitehead's primary role came on special teams, where he was productive, finishing third in tackles with 10 (7 solo) and a forced fumble.
In college, Whitehead played a nine technique in a 3-4 under defense, meaning the transition to Detroit’s 4-3 scheme was a big adjustment. Not having that pressure to be an immediate starter in his first year had it’s benefits.
"I think playing the majority on special teams helped me a great deal," said Whitehead. "I really took all of last year to adjust to the new position. I was so used to playing on the ball. Now, I feel so much more comfortable in the defense because I'm able to see the keys that I wasn't able to see last year.
"I'm picking and choosing the things that I need to get better at, instead of taking one whole lump sum and trying to get better at a bunch of things all at once."
The accumulation of reps on special teams proved to be beneficial in his development, especially with getting the perspective of playing in an open field and tackling in space, but it was practice that Burke feels he ultimately got the most out of, where he took every scout team rep as a linebacker.
"I think, as much as anyone that we had last year, he took advantage of his rookie year, that sort of red shirt year, where he obviously wasn't playing a lot," said Burke. "The biggest thing for him was being out in practice. He just hadn't gotten a lot of experience playing in that 4-3 scheme, and off the ball, and being in that sort of situation.
"Just that volume of being out there and seeing it, seeing run fits and seeing things and getting his pass drops, it really helped. I think he took advantage of that situation better than anyone I've had here."
With the departure of Durant, Whitehead is entering his second year competing for that starting spot on the outside.
It's an open competition heading into organized team activities, and Whitehead, fifth-year veteran Ashlee Palmer and second-year pro Travis Lewis, will all be pushing one another for the job.
Despite the different dynamic, though, Whitehead isn't viewing it any differently from a year ago and he's taking each day with the same approach.
"I feel confident, definitely, but I'm approaching it the same way that I did as a rookie," he said.
"Of course someone needs to fill the spot, but it hasn't really changed anything among us. It's an amazing group. Everyone is pushing each other, same as last year, and we make sure if we see a guy doing something wrong, we coach him up. We always keep it light, but we're always working."