Entering his ninth season in the NFL, linebacker Tahir Whitehead has two big challenges lying ahead of him after signing with the Carolina Panthers on a one-year deal this offseason.
He'll be one of the veterans on an extremely young defense and he's the guy that will replace Luke Kuechly at the middle linebacker position, which Kuechly held down the last eight years before retiring this offseason.
“I wouldn’t say pressure. At the end of the day, I’m always hypercritical of myself,” Whitehead told reporters on a Zoom presser. “I always say I’m my biggest critic. I’m always looking for ways to improve my game and I go out there and do any and make sure I do every and anything to help my team. That’s how I always approached the game, and that’s how I always will approach the game.”
Kuechly was hired by the Panthers as a Pro-Scout this offseason and just like rookie Jeremy Chinn said, Whitehead is making sure to take advantage of that.
“For me, it's a blessing to be able to even pick his brain," Whitehead said. "He’s a great dude, and he is open and willing to always sit down and break down film when he is out on the field. I will ask him what he thought about certain things and what is he looking at when is dissecting runs and passes. I would be a fool not to take advantage of the fact that he’s still around.”
Whitehead, 30, will take that knowledge and what he's learned during his own eight-year career to help be a part of leading a Carolina defense that's starters will have an average age of 23.45.
“It’s just helping them with a few things after practice,” Whitehead said. “Not rushing off the practice field and understanding that we have to make up for lost time. At this point, they’re coming in like a deer in the headlights, eyes wide open, not understanding what’s going on. But I take it seriously being the veteran, being a leader who can put their mind at ease and help them understand this is not your first year playing football. Yes, it is your first year in the league, but it's not your first year playing football.”
Whitehead comes to Carolina after two years with the Oakland Raiders and six years with the Detroit Lions before that, but just because he's a veteran doesn't mean he can't learn from the young players as well.
“I’m open-minded enough to take pointers from them. I’m always eager to learn from others, so I will ask them questions like what [they] thought about that rep,” Whitehead said. “You know, just to make them feel comfortable to speak on certain things and not just let guys make mistakes and do something wrong... Ask me questions, I leave the floor open. I don’t care if this is Year Nine or my rookie year.
"One of my old head coaches Jim Caldwell used to say 'A good idea holds no rank'."
In a year in which training camp is limited and the offseason didn't start until two weeks ago due to the coronavirus, it'll be important to ask questions, especially with a slow ramp up.
“You need to get your football legs back under you," Whitehead said. "You can't get ready for football without playing football. There's no way around it. That’s the only way you can get into football shape by actually going out there and playing football. So the way we are kind of easing into it, especially not having preseason games, it’s a lot of one-on-one, it’s a lot of individuals, it’s a lot of coaching and coaches are really detailing everything. It has been beneficial for everyone.”
Either way, when Whitehead steps on the field for the first time with the Panthers next month, it'll all be business.
“I’ve been playing since I was nine, you’re talking about 21 years of football now up to this point. I would say I’ve got my PH.D. in the sport," Whitehead said with a laugh.