To get ready for free agency, we're going to take a look at each of the Detroit Lions' 2016 free agents. Next up, Tahir Whitehead.
16 games (8 starts) | 50 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 6 passes defended, 1 interception
How he joined the Detroit Lions
The Lions drafted Whitehead in the fifth round of the 2012 draft and signed him to a four-year deal.
Case for re-signing him
When it became obvious the Lions had lost DeAndre Levy for the season, Detroit struggled to find a linebacker to replace him, especially in the nickel formation. Whitehead was expected to fill that role, but the Lions mostly had him coming of the bench during the first half of the season. It wasn't until Week 10 that Whitehead finally got his first start, which just so happened to coincide with the Lions' defensive turnaround.
While Whitehead can't be given full credit for the Lions' drastic defensive improvement, it can't be denied that the defense looked better with him in the middle of it. Tahir was equally impressive in pass and run defense. He posted four tackles for loss and defended six passes, the latter being more than any other linebacker on the team. Pro Football Focus rated Whitehead higher than any other linebacker on the roster.
In addition to talent, Whitehead still has youth and room to grow. Whitehead will turn 26 in a month and has been reliably healthy throughout his career. In his four years with the Lions, Whitehead has appeared in all but two games. He's talented, improving and reliable. What else could you want?
Case against re-signing him
The Lions have an issue with Whitehead, but nobody knows what it is. Tahir came into the 2015 season as a presumed starter and looked to outplay teammate Travis Lewis at every turn. Yet the Lions stubbornly started Lewis ahead of Whitehead at the beginning of the season. Though the Lions eventually righted the ship, it seems like they have something against the young linebacker.
The one real concern the Lions could have with Whitehead is that he will come at a cost much higher than his rookie contract. Whitehead was only receiving a $660,000 base salary in 2015 but will command much more than that on the market this year. It's hard to estimate exactly how much, but it is hard to imagine Whitehead pulling in anything less than $2-3 million per year on his next contract.
With Stephen Tulloch reportedly heading off to another franchise this offseason, the Lions need to lock down at least one more starting linebacker aside Levy. Whitehead's biggest hurdle in rejoining the Lions isn't Lewis, but rather Josh Bynes. In 2015, Detroit showed more trust in Bynes, who is under contract through the 2016 season. Bynes actually played more snaps and made more tackles than Whitehead last year. But the Lions would be making a mistake to let Tahir go. He's slightly younger than Bynes, he's got more room to grow and he's been one of the better linebackers on the team over the past two years. With Bynes under contract for one more year, Detroit could survive without Whitehead, but I wouldn't recommend it.