Making a position switch as a player affected by the new order of the Detroit Lions’ linebacker corps is not a new experience for Tahir Whitehead.
The way Whitehead is handling being moved from starting middle linebacker to the weak side – without complaining or sulking – isn’t new, either.
“That’s how I was raised,” Whitehead said in training camp. “Whatever life throws at you, you adjust and keep moving.”
Rookie first-round draft pick Jarrad Davis has taken over as the starter at middle linebacker, where Whitehead started 28 of 32 regular-season games in two of the last three seasons (2014 and ’16).
Moving to the weak side is another challenge for Whitehead, who has faced his share of them – and perhaps more – in his first five seasons with the Lions. He has played almost every role imaginable, from a core special teams player his first two seasons before moving up to a starter in the middle and on the strong side for most of the last three seasons.
Whitehead came into the NFL in 2012 feeling like an underdog when the Lions drafted him in the fifth round out of Temple. He has not lost that mentality, or the desire to compete for his job.
“It’s the National Football League,” Whitehead said. “You have to go out and prove yourself every year.
“I’ve always been the underdog. I’m never going to stop viewing myself as such. It gives me that motivation that someone’s always chasing me. Someone’s pushing me to try to take my job. I don’t rely on too many external forces to motivate me.
“At the end of the day, I look in the mirror and say, ‘It’s you against you.’”
Ever felt sorry for himself about the latest position switch?
“For what?” Whitehead said. “I’m still in the National Football League. This is year six for me. I’ve made it past the average of what ... two years now? I wasn’t supposed to make it this far.”
But he has made it this far, and regardless of what the career averages are for linebackers or any other personal factors, what lies directly ahead in 2017 for Whitehead and the rest of the linebacker unit is what counts.
The unit has gone through a personnel overhaul since the end of last season with a goal of getting more playmaking. Of the eight linebackers on the training camp roster, four were added in the offseason. Davis and Jalen Reeves-Maybin (fourth round) were drafted. Paul Worrilow and Nick Bellore were signed as veteran free agents.
Of the four returnees, Whitehead is the only one with extended starting experience. Thurston Armbrister and Antwione Williams started two games each last year. Steve Longa spent most of the season on the practice squad. He was active for one game.
Whitehead’s position versatility from having played all three spots – strong side, weak side and middle – makes him valuable. So does his skill level on the weak side.
“The most important part of that position is, he can run,” said head coach Jim Caldwell. “He’s got speed, but also he’s got flexibility just in terms of being able to play in a two-linebacker system as well as three because he can play, obviously, nickel downs as well.
“But his versatility in terms of his power, speed, attack angles ... he fits well with us, and actually he has ability, which he’s shown to play all three.”
Whitehead is embracing a mentor role, the way veterans such as Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy did when Whitehead was a young Lion.
Whitehead likes what he has seen in Davis. He’ll help the rookie in any way he can. That includes making the defensive calls, but Davis already has shown Whitehead that he has a knack for that.
“He’s a natural,” Whitehead said. “He’s been loud. He’s been delivering the calls. Here and there, I chime in, let him know little stuff about the ‘Mike.’ Other than that, nobody has to chime in at all.”