Lions' rookie Whitehead an early surprise

Detroit Lions rookie LB Tahir Whitehead is turning heads early into his professional career. That's a good sign for the Lions, according to insider Mike Mady, who says the team is building solid depth at the linebacker position.

When it came to the linebacker corps, the Detroit Lions were fortunate in 2011.

The team’s three starters – Stephen Tulloch, DeAndre Levy and Justin Durant – combined to miss only three games all season. 

The three missed contests occurred over the span of three consecutive weeks when Durant was sidelined with a concussion. 

Filling in for Durant was Bobby Carpenter, who the team openly referred to as their “fourth starter”.  

Last week's OTA's were a far deviation from the continuity the team enjoyed out of the position last year, as both Tulloch and Durant did not participate while Carpenter departed via free agency (New England) during the offseason.

When the number one defensive unit was on the field, Levy returned to his usual position at outside linebacker while fourth-year pro Ashlee Palmer manned the middle and was flanked by fifth-round draft choice Tahir Whitehead

Levy will enter the regular season as a starting linebacker but Palmer and Whitehead represent surprises. 

Speaking of surprises, Whitehead, a Temple University product, has seemed to catch defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham off-guard during the early stages of his career with the team.

“I’ll tell you about Tahir Whitehead,” said Cunningham.  “That’s by far the biggest surprise I’ve had in quite a while as a coach.  I think (Linebacker coach) Matt Burke and the scouts did a great job on him.  I kept looking at him and said ‘Matt, I’m not sure’.  I’ve always struggled with linebackers because of how the college game is.  Matt Burke said, ‘Gun, I believe this guy can play’.  He’s much better than a fifth-round draft choice.”

The purpose of OTAs is to work on fundamentals and playbook installation, with evaluation taking a backseat.  However, Whitehead has seemed to make a positive impression on his coaches, enough so to run with the top defensive unit in the absence of Durant and second-year player Doug Hogue, who – at this point – are ahead of him on the depth chart. 

Palmer is another surprise, getting the call to start at middle linebacker with Tulloch still resting his knee.  Conventional wisdom would have suggested Levy move to the middle – where he has starting experience – to fill in for Tulloch.  Instead Palmer, who has “looked as good as anybody” according to Cunningham, took over the responsibilities.

Palmer looks more comfortable during OTAs and attributes his progression to his offseason weight loss.

After losing about 15 pounds during the offseason, Palmer said he is able to focus on learning the nuances of the position and playbook and not have to worry about being fined for his weight.  In addition, he cites increased mobility as a significant befit from dropping the pounds.

“I slimmed down just a little bit so I can put more muscle weight on instead of fat weight,” said Palmer.  “That’s what I was, I was just fat last year and it showed.  With me losing the weight I’m able to move around better now, coming into my fourth year, my third year here, I’m comfortable playing Mike (middle linebacker).”

When training camp begins in July, there figures to be a fierce competition for the Lions fourth linebacker spot.  Based on the preliminary returns of OTAs, that competition could include up to four players (Palmer, Hogue, Whitehead and Travis Lewis). 

The Lions young linebackers have surprised so far.  As camp progresses, some more surprises may be in store. 

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