Tahir Whitehead
How Tahir Whitehead is approaching the uncertainty of the 2020 season
The middle linebacker is hoping he'll be able to get acclimated to his new team in-person soon. 
By Myles Simmons Jul 15, 2020

There's been a lot on Tahir Whitehead's mind lately.

The middle linebacker knows he has a significant role to fill, replacing the recently retired Luke Kuechly as the quarterback of Carolina's defense. Whitehead and his family will soon head to Charlotte from Atlanta — another move after Whitehead spent the last two seasons in Oakland after starting his career in Detroit. Plus, there is not yet a clear plan finalized for training camp and the season because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whitehead, a parent of four, including a three-month-old son, admits he's concerned about the current state of the world. But he feels the league and NFL Players' Association will come together to protect players as much as possible. 

"This is coming up on us fast. We're gonna see. I think that's the only thing we can do at this point — just wait and see," Whitehead said last week. "Just make sure that you're taking care of yourself, you're doing all of the social distancing stuff when you're going out in public, wearing your mask, washing your hands, using sanitizer and all that good stuff.

"Some people are out here and just not being responsible, and it's just sad because you have a ton of people who are doing things the right way. But then the people who are just not taking this serious, they're gonna be the ones that make this pandemic and everything last a lot longer than what's necessary."

The virus has already significantly impacted Whitehead's acclimation to his new team. Heading into his ninth NFL season, Whitehead has started 86 games through his six years with the Lions and two with the Raiders, starting all 16 games the last three seasons. He spent most of 2019 as Oakland's defensive signal-caller, following linebacker Vontaze Burfict's 12-game suspension for an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit.

But even with Whitehead's extensive experience, he missed aspects of an in-person offseason program.

"Believe it or not, nothing beats the on-field reps — nothing," Whitehead said.

He then shared an example about repping plays where he has to get hands on a shifty 5-foot-11 wide receiver in the slot. Then, Whitehead still needs to read the quarterback's eyes as another receiver comes across his face over the middle. But at the same time, a receiver in the flat could distract from an intermediate route at the second level.

"From a concept standpoint, I've been able to grasp the defense's scheme as far as what we're doing," Whitehead said. "But I think you definitely need those reps. And being on a new team with a bunch of new guys, you definitely want to have that to be able to get on the same page."

The communication aspect is particularly crucial for a middle linebacker, which Whitehead knows well given his history with the position. He isn't taking lightly the fact that he's replacing Kuechly, but he also isn't going to make the situation more than what it is, trying to be a player he isn't.

"For me, it's just a matter of I'm my biggest critic. At the end of the day, Luke is Luke and I'm me. He plays the game differently than I do and vice versa. So I just have to go out there and make sure that I can execute my ability and my job within the scheme," Whitehead said.

"So making sure that I'm a good presence in the locker room, a good presence in the linebacker room, and making sure that I'm leading by example and not doing all of the rah-rah stuff. That's just it."

But with Kuechly staying with the organization as a pro scout, Whitehead added, "I'd be a fool not to take advantage of him still being in the building."

"He's extremely smart. Heard nothing but great things about him over the years and I've always admired the way he played from afar."

Whitehead feels similarly about Shaq Thompson, saying he wants to ensure Thompson still feels as comfortable on the field as he did with Kuechly. Watching film, Whitehead quickly noticed the chemistry between the two linebackers.

"My thing is just coming in and just allowing him to still have that freedom to go out there and play the same way he's been playing and not having him feel like, 'Oh man, I have to play different,'" Whitehead said. "So I'm extremely excited about getting an opportunity to play with Shaq."

And judging by how staff talks about Whitehead, it sounds like he could also act as an extra coach.

"(Whitehead is) an alpha. He's aggressive. He's demonstrative. He's a leader," linebackers coach Mike Siravo said. "He can pass rush, he can cover — heck, he can cover like a nickel (cornerback) and he can play 'Mike' 'backer. There's not many guys out there who can do that. He's really unique. But to also have his level of football IQ is a rare thing."

Tahir Whitehead point

Added head coach Matt Rhule:

"What I can't wait for is for our young players to be in the meeting rooms and day-to-day with guys like him because you really see the commitment to process. You see the commitment to learning it from the ground up."

While Whitehead hadn't met Siravo before signing with Carolina, the middle linebacker doesn't need to worry about getting to know his head coach. Whitehead played at Temple from 2008-11 when Rhule was the Owls' offensive coordinator.

"When you get to know him, he's such a great, great, great, person, but he's also so serious about his football," Rhule said. "He's always been that way. So I had a great feeling he would bring a sense of seriousness to us."

Even as a defensive player, Whitehead had great respect and appreciation for Rhule's players-first approach and is looking forward to seeing that come together in Carolina.

"(Rhule is) always willing to teach you, always willing to school you on the game, school you on life," Whitehead said. "It's refreshing to see that nothing's changed with him. He still has the same ways about him. 

"You can tell that his staff holds the same respect for him in the sense that they speak highly of him all the time, and they carry themselves the same way in which Coach Rhule does. You can see that from top to bottom, and I'm excited to be able to reunite with him and play for him."

Whitehead previously played for Lions (2012-17) and Raiders (2018-19) before signing with the Panthers.

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