Cunningham says Whitehead is much better than a fifth-round draft choice

Posted Jun 6, 2012

Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham isn’t too proud to admit that he failed to see Tahir Whitehead’s potential in the evaluation process for this year’s NFL Draft. Cunningham said it was linebackers coach Matt Burke who first spotted Whitehead’s potential and lobbied for the team to draft him.

The Lions felt strongly enough about Burke’s evaluation to give up a 2013 fourth-round pick in order to move up in the fifth round to get Whitehead.

So far, they haven’t been disappointed with that decision.

Following Monday’s OTA practice, the media asked Cunningham about rookie linebacker Travis Lewis and second-year player Doug Hogue competing for the fourth linebacker spot. He paused for a moment, then instantly re-directed the subject to Whitehead.

“That’s a good question, I’ll tell you about Tahir Whitehead,” Cunningham said. “I’ll start that way."

That’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. I kept looking at him and I said, 'Matt, I am not sure.' I have always struggled with linebackers because of the way the college game is (played). But Matt Burke said, 'Gun, I believe this guy can play,' and I think Matt Burke was right. And so were the scouts.

"He's much better than a fifth-round draft choice. He is something."

Cunningham then went on to answer the question about Lewis and Hogue, but the fact that he made it a point to include Whitehead in the conversation says a little something about the early impressions Whitehead is leaving on coaches this offseason, especially Cunningham.

Whitehead was a 3-4 on-the-line rush linebacker at Temple and finished his senior year with 12 tackles-for-loss and five sacks. By all accounts, he’s making a seamless transition as an outside linebacker in the team’s 4-3 scheme.

"I think everything fits," Burke said of Whitehead. "You can't have a direct translation from some of the stuff he does on film but everything else sort of fits to a tee and we felt really good about where he's going to go with us there."

Whitehead was running with the first-team defense Monday in the absence of starter Justin Durant (undisclosed) and Hogue (laceration on his arm), so Whitehead should certainly be part of any future conversations about backup linebackers and their possibilities of making an impact this year.