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Scouting Jets safety Jordan Whitehead

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - Philadelphia Eagles v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

During the first week of free agency, the Jets signed former Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Jordan Whitehead to a two-year deal in free agency. Today we break him down in detail.

The 25-year old Whitehead is listed at 5’10” and 198 pounds and was a fourth round pick out of Pitt in 2018. He has started 55 games for the Bucs over the last four seasons and recorded 292 tackles, five interceptions, two sacks and 25 pass breakups.

Background

Whitehead was a four star recruit following high school where he played on both sides of the ball and also ran track.

He went to Pitt where he was an instant contributor as a true freshman. After coming off the bench in the opener, he started every other game and ended the season with over 100 tackles and six pass breakups. He also moonlighted on offense, racking up 132 yards and two touchdowns in a special package role.

He was having another good season in 2016 as he had 65 tackles, a pick-six and 98 yards on nine carries. Unfortunately he suffered a serious arm injury and missed the last three games, although he did earn second-team all-ACC honors.

In his junior year, Whitehead missed the first three games but ended the season with 60 tackles, four pass breakups and 149 yards from scrimmage. At the end of the season, he decided to enter the draft and was selected by the Bucs in the fourth round.

Whitehead started off as a backup with the Bucs but soon moved into the starting lineup due to injuries during his rookie year. He ended the season with 76 tackles and four pass breakups.

He was the starter throughout the 2019 season and had a career high nine pass breakups and the first interception of his career. However, he made mistakes at times as the Bucs finished 7-9.

In 2020 he started every game as the Bucs won the Super Bowl, racking up 74 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions.

2021 saw him have another good season with 73 tackles, eight passes defensed and two interceptions.

The Jets signed Whitehead to a two-year deal worth a reported $7 million per season which means he’ll still be 26 when free agency opens at the end of his deal.

Now let’s take a look at what Whitehead brings to the table, divided into categories.

Measurables/Athleticism

Whitehead is undersized and lacks length but his speed and athletic ability shows up on film. Despite this, his pro day workout numbers were only about average, with his agility numbers below average. He ran a 4.59 in the 40-yard dash.

That came after he missed most of his combine workout due to injury, although he did manage to post a solid 21 bench press reps.

Usage

Whitehead is at his best when he can play closer to the line of scrimmage, which he’s done most of the time since his rookie season. He didn’t play in the box as often as some strong safeties with the Bucs because they play a lot of two-deep, though.

Coverage skills

In coverage, Whitehead has matched up regularly with tight ends and slot receivers. Having played cornerback in high school, he has some natural coverage abilities but he relies more on athletic ability than technique. He has the athletic ability to easily be able to stay with tight ends down the field.

Here’s a fourth down play in the red zone where he closes to disrupt on a receiver out of the slot.

Whitehead has outstanding range when roaming center field, although he can get pulled out of positions at times.

He has had three penalties for defensive pass interference, one for defensive holding and one for illegal contact in his career so far.

Ball skills

Whitehead doesn’t have great ball production numbers throughout his career, although he did intercept seven passes in his final season at high school. He only had one interception in each of his three college seasons and five in four NFL seasons.

Nevertheless, his closing speed is good and most of his interceptions have come from reacting to bad or deflected passes. Here’s a play where he drops off and makes an athletic play on the ball.

On this play, he allows himself to get turned around and is unable to relocate the ball in time to make a play on it.

Despite having experience of handling the ball on offense, Whitehead has dropped a few potential interceptions at the NFL level but he is a return threat if he does get his hands on a turnover.

Tackling

Whitehead is a productive tackler and has earned a reputation as a hard-hitter despite his size. He does a good job of getting bigger ball carriers on the ground and displays impressive closing speed.

He has a knack for forcing fumbles, and had two in the Bucs’ postseason run including this crucial play in the 2020 NFC title game.

As is often the case with big hitters, Whitehead misses too many tackles and should ideally look to improve his tackle percentage. Here’s a play where he overpursues in space.

Run defense

Whitehead has always excelled in run defense which was one of the reasons Pitt decided to convert him from cornerback to safety.

He’s good at making early reads, shooting gaps into the backfield and pursuing across the field. He’s capable of coming up into the box late or lining up in the box.

In four seasons, Whitehead has racked up 22 tackles for loss. By comparison, Marcus Maye only has nine in five seasons.

Physicality

Much like DJ Reed, Whitehead compensates for his lack of size with tenaciousness and competitiveness. He is not afraid to take on blockers in the running game.

He generally hits clean but has been called for two unnecessary roughness penalties in his career so far, one of which was controversial as he seemed to try to duck his head out of the tackle but made contact to the head and neck area with his shoulder.

Blitzing

Whitehead has two career sacks, both in 2020, but his closing speed can be an asset when blitzing and his pressure rates when he does blitz have been solid.

Perhaps surprisingly, he hardly ever blitzed in college, including no pass rush reps at all in his final season. He had half a sack as a freshman.

He has been called for one roughing the passer penalty since entering the NFL with the Bucs.

Special teams

Whitehead played some special teams in Tampa Bay, but didn’t make any major contributions and his duties reduced in 2021 so he perhaps won’t be used much in that role with the Jets. He had two special teams tackles in college.

Instincts/Intelligence

Whitehead has a lot of highlights where he makes a quick read and anticipates well to blow it up, both against the run and on short passes.

He has had some blown coverages over the years and can be susceptible to play action and misdirection, but has reduced those instances in recent seasons after it was an area of concern for some scouts while he was in college. Here’s a play where his awareness let him down though.

Attitude

Whitehead was regarded by his Bucs teammates as a leader and someone who brought good energy and always knew his assignment.

In college, he was suspended for the first three games of the 2017 season for a violation of team rules but all indications are that this was a wake-up call for him and he learned and matured from the incident.

He has been fined once at the NFL, for a hit to the helmet on Baker Mayfield.

Injuries

Whitehead’s durability has been pretty good as he has only missed six games in his career, playing at least 14 games in every season.

He’s twice missed time due to a hamstring injury and also had a hamstring injury at the combine. He’s also missed time with a shoulder injury and showed toughness by playing in the Super Bowl run with a torn labrum.

In college, he had a gruesome broken arm at the end of his sophomore season and missed the last three games.

Scheme Fit

As noted, Whitehead is best suited to a strong safety role and the Jets play plenty of cover-3 so he should get more chances to make plays closer to the line of scrimmage.

Of the players on the current roster, Lamarcus Joyner and Jason Pinnock are probably the two players best-suited to a deep safety role that could complement Whitehead.

He hasn’t been a teammate of any current Jets before, other than Pinnock, who was a freshman during Whitehead’s last year in college.

Conclusions

Whitehead is still developing and, like most of the Jets signings, arguably had his best season as a pro in 2021.

His stellar play against the run should give a boost to a run defense that was among the worst in the NFL for much of last season and if he can play like he did over the past two years in coverage, then that will provide the Jets with an ungrade too.

Whitehead should bring energy, impact plays and a winning mentality to the Jets which could make him a fan favorite in short order. If he can take his game to the next level, he could cash in big time after the 2023 season, so he’ll definitely be motivated to impress.