Jordan Whitehead came to the Jets in free agency with a reputation as a physical, hard-hitting safety.
In his four seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Whitehead was credited with 222 solo tackles in the regular season and 22 tackles for loss. Yet, beyond the bone-rattling hits imposed on the opposition, Whitehead mentioned a seldom spoken about consequence of consistently playing with abandon.
"We [the Bucs] played in a division with the Panthers, Saints and Falcons," Whitehead told senior team reporter Eric Allen on this week's edition of "The Official Jets Podcast." "My favorite was playing against [Alvin] Kamara and [Christian] McCaffery twice a year and every time my best games were against the Saints and the Panthers. I'd always tell myself before the game that all I want is a clean, safe shot on each of them. I had a couple of tags on them.
"It's a great feeling after stopping them short, it's a good feeling. But one thing I can say about those big hits is that sometimes they hurt a bit. You have to act like they don't. You know, celebrate a little. Then you get back to the sideline and you say 'I hit him but I felt it, too.' "
He added: "That's a big thing in my game, trying to tune up a bit. Sometimes you get so dialed in you don't pay attention to the ball. It gets you points, gets you wins. But I've had too many dropped interceptions. Too many."
Last season, Whitehead made 14 starts, and had 2 INTs, 8 passes defensed, a forced fumble and 73 tackles (5 for loss). He also made two playoff starts and had 13 tackles. Whitehead played 88 percent of the defensive snaps during the regular season. Pro Football Focus rated Whitehead 27th of 92 safeties they graded; 10th in run defense and 35th in coverage. According to PFF, he had 334 snaps in the box, 265 snaps at free safety, 191 in the slot and 42 at corner.
After signing with the Jets, Whitehead, 25, finds himself as another one of those "young veterans" sprinkled across the Green & White's roster. It is expected that he will team with veteran Lamarcus Joyner (who is coming off a torn triceps that kept him out of all but one game in the 2021 season) as the starting safeties.
"Coming in I really didn't know too much about the Jets' safety play," he said. "I got here and started watching film of Elijah [Riley] making plays, Ashtyn [Davis] making plays -- he's pretty good. We had a great OTA and minicamp; we have a lot of smart players. Guys like [Jason] Pinnock who I played with at Pitt. He's a corner who moved to safety, and I'm watching him now, being with him every day. He's very smart and knows the game. Once he learns the little things, he'll be able to take it to the next level. Joyner is the veteran in the room. He's been coaching me up, teaching me new things."
With Joyner missing most of last season, and then Marcus Maye tearing an Achilles tendon midway through the season, defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich was forced to improvise and change players on the fly. Now with Whitehead and Joyner back, the Jets can boast depth at safety -- and across the defense.
"We are so fortunate to have gotten him," Ulbrich said. "He is an amazing human being. Every day, he does something that just lights me up again. Like damn, he can do that, he can do that, he can do that. I don't know what his role was in Tampa regarding whether he was a leader or not, but he has absolutely assumed that role here with the fellas. They absolutely gravitate toward him, and they follow his lead and he does a great job of that. It's just rare that you get a guy in free agency like that because typically when you check all the boxes physically, you check all the boxes from a character standpoint, teams don't let you go. The fact that we were able to get him is huge."
Whitehead brings unique big-game experience with him to the Jets, something head coach Robert Saleh mentioned after several Jets' free agency additions. Whitehead played with quarterback Tom Brady the past two seasons, winning the Super Bowl in 2020.
"With him I really know how to take practice like a game rep," Whitehead said. "Every rep you get he was so dialed in. He would criticize his offensive players, be really hard on them if they didn't run the right route, but it was constructive. Walk-throughs weren't walks, they were jogs. It was new for me. He was so dialed in at team meetings. Even if the talk was about the defense, he would take notes. Little things like that.
"I talked to him and asked him about what he reads, what's his keys. He said he reads the safeties more most of the time. He showed me that if you disguise things, you can mix everything up."
See the top photos of the Jets safeties leading up to training camp.
A few weeks ago, Whitehead caused some members of the media to raise an eyebrow or two when he said that the Jets secondary -- safeties and cornerbacks – could be one of the best he's played on.
"When I said that, I really meant it," he said. "There's depth at safety, for sure, and just knowing that at corner we have two in D.J. Reed, who's played amazing the last couple of years. Then you draft a player at No. 4 [Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner], [Bryce] Hall had a lot of reps last year. You feel good going into games with three, four solid corners."
Gardner, who allowed only 13 catches for 117 yards last season, didn't give up a touchdown in his three seasons with the Bearcats. He impressed his teammates throughout spring workouts.
"Ahmad is his name until he makes a play on Sunday," Whitehead said. "He made a couple of plays in recent week's showing what he's capable of doing. Once he makes more plays, we'll call him Sauce. One thing about him is that he's very football savvy He has that confidence and when you look at him you know. He's coachable and knowledgeable and I tell him something and the next play he's doing it. He's soaking up information, he's been studying and picking it up fast. He's a young guy ready to play. His size is his superpower, that's what Saleh said. He's going to do a good job getting up on the line and pressing receivers."
Heading into training camp, which begins in a couple of weeks, Whitehead said that he sees a collection of players on an evolving team.
"I think we have the pieces in the room, guys are working and making plays," he said. "I really believe this team is going a long way."