It's not even July yet, but the biggest summer camp competition for the Detroit Lions is already heating up. After Justin Durant exited to the Dallas Cowboys in free agency, an immediate need was created at the other outside linebacker spot.
Three players enter the battle to play along side Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy. Second year players Travis Lewis and Tahir Whitehead will join Ashlee Palmer in competing for a starting role. All three played out 2012 on special teams, with Palmer continuing to excel in that spot as he always has in the past.
That's precisely the reason why the Lions should push either Lewis or Whitehead hard (preferably Whitehead) to win this job. Palmer has said he could start and play special teams if need be, but it's not beneficial for the Lions to ask that much of him. Whomever wins the starting job will have to assume plenty of mental and physical responsibility, and with lots of turnover on specialty teams this year, the Lions will need at least one quality familiar face on that side of the ball dedicated completely to that cause.
Enter Whitehead, who's spent plenty of time honing his skills because he barely saw the field last season. Often times in camp as a rookie, the former Temple Owl looked good, as Dave Birkett detailed in the Detroit Free Press. Then, he hit a wall when competition ramped up and the games and schemes changed, eventually causing him to struggle while doubting his own abilities.
"It was just playing out of position. Playing from a nine technique (in college and) then playing off the ball (in the NFL) and being able to see different things, I just didn't feel comfortable."
Clearly, though, Whitehead's talent is still shining through a year later. His biggest asset is speed, and he's able to cover laterally quite well, which showed last season in training camp and at times during the preseason. In this aspect, he would be a perfect replacement for Durant, who was often a tackling machine when paired with Tulloch and Levy. With an aggressive defensive line promised again, the Lions need speed and hitting on the edges for containment purposes.
Given all his positive attributes, Whitehead could best provide this, along with the intangible of some young defensive leadership, which only comes from paying dues, learning and taking time to understand that success isn't immediately guaranteed to anyone in pro football.
With last season's issues behind him, a natural fit at the position and a clearer approach to his craft, Whithead should be given every opportunity to take the other starting outside linebacker job over first.
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