FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – Jordan Whitehead felt like he was doing everything he could to make his mark within the Tampa Bay Buccaneers secondary last season. Unfortunately, his spot on the field didn’t reflect his perceived station on the roster.
Whitehead, a 2018 fourth-round pick out of Pittsburgh, had climbed the depth chart and became a three-year starter for the then-defending Super Bowl champions. Despite his grind to the top and enhanced leadership role, Whitehead was asked to come off the field during plays where he thought he should have been in the heat of the battle.
The disappointment from his occasional sideline spurts — at least partially — led to Whitehead landing with the New York Jets this offseason in free agency.
Jordan Whitehead serving as the leader for Jets after frustrating finish with Buccaneers
“I’m a team player, but I was frustrated,” Whitehead said Wednesday following a Jets OTAs workout. “I would come out on third down, sometimes. I just felt like I was making enough plays, and I was being a leader on the team. It just felt like I should have been in the game. … I’m a team player, and it’s a team-first mentality, but I definitely was frustrated. I think anybody would be.”
In March, Whitehead signed a two-year, $14.5 million contract with the Jets. The 5-foot-10, 198-pound safety went from being a cog in the machine of a perennial playoff contender to a veteran presence in an up-and-coming franchise that is looking to get out of an 11-year postseason drought.
The Jets were aggressive in improving their secondary this offseason after finishing 30th against the pass last season. The team signed Whitehead and former Seattle Seahawks cornerback D.J. Reed to upgrade a pair of starting spots. New York then selected Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner with the fourth overall pick in April’s draft. While Gardner has the marquee name, Reed and Whitehead are expected to lead the new-and-improved defensive backfield this year.
“I think it can be like one of the best secondaries I’ve been a part of in five years,” Whitehead said. “These guys are hungry.”
Whitehead started to embrace a leadership role in Tampa Bay towards the end of his tenure. The influence of then-defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who is now the Buccaneers’ head coach and, ironically, previously served in the same position with the Jets, led Whitehead to become a better communicator.
“Each year in the league, I feel like [I’ve] been more comfortable communicating,” Whitehead said. “[Bowles] was big on his safeties, and he would be hard on us, and he would make sure we were talking. If we weren’t talking, he was going to say something. So, that was my biggest thing last year, being a vocal guy, communicating, getting the defense set up, and that’s what I stick to now. That’s part of my game. I want to make sure everyone is on the same page. If there’s a bust [in coverage], I put that on myself.”
Jets DC impressed with Whitehead so far
Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich has been impressed by Whitehead’s attitude and personality during the offseason program. The coach has noticed the veteran defensive back’s genuine concern for his teammates and his ability to mentor them.
“Amazing human being, teammate, like constantly bringing people along, bringing the young guys along, great communicator,” Ulbrich said. “As far as the man, he was everything that was advertised coming from Tampa. I got some people over there that I really respect from a coaching standpoint and a playing standpoint, and he was stamped by everybody as far as the character. He has absolutely lived up to that.”
Whitehead’s leadership and character will be important for the young Jets who are looking to right the ship after a 4-13 start to the Robert Saleh era. Whitehead was encouraged by the group’s performance against the Buccaneers last season, as Saleh’s squad nearly upset Whitehead, Tom Brady, and company in a 28-24 Week 17 battle. That outing also played a role in Whitehead choosing to sign with the Jets.
Whitehead — who collected 25 pass breakups, five interceptions, and two forced fumbles during his four-year stint with the Buccaneers — brings a Super Bowl ring with him to the Meadowlands. Whitehead’s background with a successful franchise, along with his interpersonal skills, could help the Jets turn the tide in the near future.
Ulbrich thinks Whitehead’s ability to communicate will be key to that turnaround.
“It is absolutely huge,” Ulbrich said. “We talk about it all the time, we talked about it this morning. There is no wrong page if we are all on the same page. Great communicators, demonstrative communicators, especially from the safety position to get us all on the same page, it just elevates everybody. To have a guy like him, it’s huge for us.”
Obviously, while communication is important, the Jets didn’t sign Whitehead simply for pre-game speeches and in-game adjustments. The Jets value his production on the field. He’s capable of playing in zone and man coverage and can be used at either safety position. That versatility is important for Saleh’s defense, especially with so many new pieces in the secondary. But with all of those moving parts, having Whitehead to direct traffic will ultimately make the secondary better.
“He increases, obviously, what we do on the grass,” Ulbrich said, “but he improves the locker room as well.”