Tahir Whitehead has versatility on his side

Posted May 26, 2015

Whether it’s special teams, outside linebacker or middle linebacker, Tahir Whitehead has shown his value as a versatile player.

Tahir Whitehead was a core special teams player his first two seasons with the Detroit Lions in 2012-13. He recorded 11 tackles and a forced fumble in 14 games on special teams as a rookie. He racked up nine more special teams tackles and another forced fumble in 2013.

He finally earned a starting role on defense out of training camp last season as a hybrid SAM linebacker in Teryl Austin’s defense, the same position he played in college at Temple.

Then MIKE linebacker Stephen Tulloch tore his ACL Week 3 vs. the Packers and Whitehead was thrust into the middle, one of the most important roles on the Lions defense, having never played the MIKE in his football career.

Tahir WhiteheadLB Tahir Whitehead (Photo: Detroit Lions)

“It was definitely a good feeling to see myself able to contribute on defense,” Whitehead said. “Being in the MIKE position is being the center of the defense. Playing sideline to sideline. Being able to take charge to make the calls and get everyone set up. I took pride in that.

“I felt like there was a lot of weight on my shoulders and I didn’t want to let my team down, so I had to step up to the plate. It was either show up or shut up.”

Whitehead showed up for the next 14 games at the MIKE and finished second on the team with 86 tackles. He also recorded two interceptions.

“I thought our coaching staff and Teryl (Austin) and (linebackers coach) Bill Sheridan and those guys did a great job with that decision,” Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said this offseason of moving Whitehead to the middle. “I never really viewed Tahir as a MIKE backer. I thought of him more as an outside guy.

“We had discussions about that and they felt very comfortable he could adapt to the MIKE linebacker position, and he did. He did a phenomenal job in there playing for us and he has a very bright future.”

With Tulloch back on the field and ready to resume his MIKE duties this season, Whitehead’s future appears to be back on the outside at the SAM.

“I played the outside SAM backer in college and I feel it’s a good fit for me,” Whitehead said. “I see myself competing with Kyle (Van Noy) for the SAM position, but still, at the end of the day, you have to know the MIKE too.

“We pride ourselves on being able to have multiple fronts and be able to hit an offense from all different angles, so you just have to know everything. If you only know one position it leaves you as the odd man out.”

The SAM position requires a player to be quick off the edge, set points and be equally good against the pass and run. Whitehead said his time playing MIKE last year was invaluable in helping him learn every position on defense and how they all fit together. He thinks it'll be a huge advantage for him moving forward on the outside.

“Since I was in college and even high school I was always looked at as not being the biggest guy or the fastest guy, but I always prided myself on being able to know a defense and being able to know more than one position,” Whitehead said.

“This past season has given me the opportunity to show that. That’s something I take pride in, being able to play wherever I’m needed.”

Whether it’s special teams, outside linebacker or middle linebacker, Whitehead has proved his value and versatile players like him tend to have long careers in this league.