Given an opportunity in Friday's preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, however, Whitehead made a very strong argument for being a future staple of the Detroit defense.
Whitehead got the call to start at outside linebacker against Jacksonville and responded with a monster 11-tackle (10 solo), three-sack performance.
Whitehead started because he's played like one of the three best LBs, Caldwell said. #Lions— Josh Katzenstein (@jkatzenstein) August 23, 2014
The imposing defensive line of Detroit—which includes Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Ziggy Ansah—might be the centerpiece of the Lions defense. However, it was Whitehead who found his way into the spotlight on Friday night.
The former fifth-round pick from Temple frequently found his way to the ball-carrier against the first-and second-team Jaguars offense. He also flashed his pass-rushing potential, netting three sacks out of a variety of blitz packages.
Named the Lions' special teams player of 2013, Whitehead had practically been an afterthought for Detroit's defense until this offseason. However, the small-school product quickly gained the attention of new head coach Jim Caldwell during offseason workouts.
Caldwell spoke highly of Whitehead in a June story by Kyle Meinke of MLive.com.
He's an explosive guy. He's got punch and can run. Certainly, he can direct traffic in there. He's got a real good feel for things. He's a good football player. You see him close ground out there on the field. The guy can make plays.
Whitehead's versatility should make him a strong candidate for a starting spot in new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin's system.
While the Lions are expected to maintain a 4-3 base defense in 2014, Austin has witnessed firsthand exactly how much impact a versatile linebacker can have. He served as secondary coach for the Baltimore Ravens in 2012, when linebackers Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis helped pave the way for a Super Bowl title.
Whitehead, of course, has a long way to go before proving that he can perform at a championship level. However, the former special teams ace has flashed enough potential this preseason to suggest that he can be a difference-maker once the games actually count.
The best NFL linebackers have the ability to chase down running backs, make plays in coverage and bring down the quarterback. Whitehead proved he has the ability to excel at all three of these tasks on Friday night.
With down-linemen like Suh demanding attention from opposing offenses, linebackers like Whitehead should have plenty of opportunities to make plays. If Whitehead can continue to flourish behind that high-profile line, don't be surprised if he becomes an unexpected centerpiece in the Detroit defense in 2014.