Jordan Whitehead won a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay -- he's got the ring and the Tom Brady stories to prove it. One season later, Whitehead found himself on the open market in the NFL, a free agent.
"I can only take care of what I can take care of," Whitehead, 25, who signed with the Jets in March, told reporters on Saturday after the team's second joint practice against the Atlanta Falcons at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center.
For Saleh, the opportunity to snap up a premier safety was simply too good to be true.
"Love Jordan," Saleh said as he fine-tuned preparations for Monday night's preseason game against the Falcons at MetLife Stadium. " Every once in a while, a guy sneaks out of a building in free agency for one reason or another and he's one of them. He's not normally a guy that you see exiting a building that they were drafted in. He is absolutely phenomenal. His mental makeup, his leadership, the way he prepares every day, his play style. He really is a total package and I'm just thankful that he's here. "
Whitehead (5-10, 198) spent four seasons with the Buccaneers after being drafted out of the University of Pittsburgh. Last season was arguably his best with Tampa Bay in coverage (no TDs allowed and opponents' passer rating of 62.6, both career lows). In 14 games last season, he had 2 interceptions and made 73 tackles (58 solo) while taking 796 snaps (88%).
In Saleh's view, the acquisition of Whitehead to team with another veteran, Lamarcus Joyner, at safety has brought to the Jets several intangibles. Of course, there's their experience in the NFL, but there is also Whitehead's organic leadership that has already had an impact on his coaches and his teammates.
"I think the way he's done it is cool," Saleh said. "He doesn't try to be a leader, it just comes naturally and becomes one way he approaches his day-to-day business. He's definitely made of the right stuff. Our communication back there is much improved."
In the preseason opener at Philadelphia, a pass from QB Jalen Hurts down the left side of the field to Dallas Goedert beat Whitehead. The Jets considered it a valuable preseason lesson and Whitehead says it won't happen in the future.
"Jordan Whitehead will never get beat on that again, I can say that confidently because he is starting to understand, oh, 'I get one or two close and I'm in the high red zone, here come scissors – it's coming,' " defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said this past week. "You start to anticipate it. That's where the special plays lie within this defense. From the anticipatory stuff that comes from knowing how you're being attacked and then knowing your own techniques so well that you just, its sub-conscience competence and you just operate at that level."
See the Green & White on the practice field with the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday at 1 Jets Drive.
Asked about that particular play on Saturday, Whitehead said: "That's a mistake I'll never make again. I write it down. It happened once. I can't let it happen again."
Along with Joyner, who missed most of last season with a torn triceps, the veteran presence has brought stability to the entire Jets defensive secondary. Second-year man Jason Pinnock has made the switch from cornerback to safety (he and Whitehead both played in college at Pitt) and said "it's surreal, it's come full circle from playing corner, I never would have thought I'd be playing side-by-side [with Whitehead], he's just go so much energy, when you're out there you can feel it."
Add to that the signing of cornerback D.J. Reed and the drafting (at No. 4 overall) of Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner and a wily veteran like linebacker C.J. Mosley said that Whitehead has brought a host of talent north to New Jersey and has helped to transform the defensive backfield.
"Versatility, speed, awareness, his IQ level is real high," Mosley said recently. "You see him in the back end reading the quarterback, shooting his gap, making plays. And he loves to be in the run fight, too. Anytime you can get a safety that can play the pass and fight fast in the run, that's a plus."