Rhule and Snow have been less specific about the way in which the Panthers are going to use their linebackers in coverage, and there is no clear indication from how Whitehead was used last season in Oakland either, as he played a mixture of man and zone at a range of depth. While Whitehead allowed a passer rating of 140.4 (fifth-worst in the NFL) last season when targeted, he appears to have the technical skills to perform at a better rate than that; for some context, Shaq Thompson allowed a 95.2 passer rating in 2019.
In underneath zone, he does a decent job of rallying to the ball, and has enough quickness to limit yards after the catch:
He also shows a reasonably nice transition at the head of routes, making the most of his leverage and keeping his feet moving:
However, his footwork is quite sloppy at times, with a number of unnecessary steps that put him off balance and make it harder for him to break on the ball in a smooth way:
There were also a couple of times on tape where a player ran in front of his face and he was a step slow to react, allowing the receiver to create enough space for a reception, though this was not egregious:
This is something that shows up when he is asked to drop into more intermediate zones as well, and while Whitehead isn’t awful in this regard, it would probably be fair to say that he is going to struggle to stick with better route runners at the head of routes; in zone coverage at all levels, his questionable balance is too easily manipulated:
However, he does again show a nice understanding of leverage, and when he is able to keep plays in front of him, he can work effectively to take away easy separation at the head of routes:
An additional positive is his range in coverage – while nobody is going to mistake him for a cornerback, he has the speed to drop deep to pressure intermediate routes, even off of play action:
This is something that Oakland looked to take advantage of at times and they would often get him to trail to the middle of the field in what looked to be some variant of a Tampa 2 coverage:
This is something the Panthers have done historically with Kuechly and while Whitehead is more limited in that he is really only able to do this while turning his back to the ball – something that shows up at the catch point…..
His ability to drop deep in this way, even with this limitation, does offer a level of schematic flexibility that not all linebackers are capable of – again, an example of signing a player to fit the mold you’re looking for on defense.
He does, however, need to maybe not be quite so aggressive in press at times:
Whitehead didn’t play a huge amount of man coverage, at least in terms of dropping into coverage against tight ends and receivers on routes down the field – when he did, it was made clear that he probably doesn’t have the speed to run with receivers or faster tight ends:
Where he was often used in man coverage, however, was to take running backs working as checkdown options out of the backfield – while he will not be expected to blanket Alvin Kamara or Saquon Barkley in man-to-man, and while this isn’t going to add a huge amount of value schematically, if the Panthers aren’t going to play a huge amount of man coverage, this should be enough for him to be a functional piece inside the structure of the defense:
Tahir Whitehead is not a great coverage player, nor is he an elite run defender, but he is a perfectly competent NFL starter in both regards – particularly in a one-gap run scheme that allows him to work downhill to the ball carrier a lot, he should be both a decent starter in the middle of the defense and a useful veteran leader in what is likely to be one of the youngest defenses in the NFL. While that might sound like damning with faint praise, for $2.5m on a one year deal, that looks to be pretty good value.
(Top Photo: Ross D. Cameron/Associated Press)