Before Tampa Bay's visit to MetLife Stadium last season, the Bucs' soon-to-be free-agent safety Jordan Whitehead sought out some inside information from the Jets' former defensive lineman Steve McLendon.
"McLendon was here a long time [2016-20] and he told everybody before the game that these guys are going to play hard, they're going to fight," Whitehead said. "And that's what they did."
The Jets gave Tom Brady and his teammates all they could handle, until the Green & White's quarterbacking nemesis for nearly 20 years engineered a final scoring drive that crushed the Jets' hope of an upset.
"They beat us up early," Whitehead said. "It was a tough game to the last second when our offense made a good play. That stuck with me thinking about the decision I was about to make. I like to see teams going out and trying to beat us and here are these guys, whatever their record was it doesn't matter -- they came out and played hard. So we have a fresh start, new players, a new group of guys, new knowledge and everything. We could be very special."
In his fourth season with the Bucs, Whitehead played in 14 games and admitted to reporters after an OTA session on Wednesday at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center that he gradually grew frustrated. He played 796 snaps last season, his lowest total since the 660 snaps he played as a rookie out of Pitt in 2018.
"I'm a team player," he said. "But it was frustrating to come out on third-down sometimes. I felt like I was making enough plays and being a leader on the team. I felt I should be in the game. I was not going to handle it during the season, handle it after season. Definitely I was frustrated, everyone would be if you felt you're not being used right."
Enter the Jets, who were in need of an experienced safety, not only to take a roster spot, but to provide needed depth and steady voice for the team's younger players. The plan last season to pair Marcus Maye and Lamarcus Joyner was dealt a blow early and midway through the campaign. Joyner, signed in free agency and re-signed for the coming season, sustained a triceps tear in the Week 1 game at Carolina before Maye's season (and Jets career) ended in Week 9 at Indianapolis when he ruptured an Achilles tendon.
"He's a veteran and when I was in college I used to watch him all the time," Whitehead said of Joyner. "We have the same agent. I get my plant style from him, we're both not big guys. When he was with the Rams I used to watch him all day. Now when he's my teammate I can ask him a lot of things and have a lot of knowledge."
See the Jets on the field during the fifth OTA practice of 2022.
And now with second-year Jason Pinnock, another Pitt alum, the Jets could at times have two former Panthers playing safety.
"I remember when he was at Pitt, I was a junior and he was like my little bro," Whitehead said, referring to Pinnock. "He always had ball skills and him being at safety now gives him a chance to play free, roam around. He has a lot of range. As he gets smarter and more comfortable he will be great."
Whitehead could barely contain his optimism about what is to come.
"I think this can be one of the best secondaries I've been a part of in five years," he said. "These guys are hungry.
"This group is very smart, a lot of hard workers. I don't see a difference between this group and the last team I was on and the group of guys I played with, Richard Sherman and all those guys. We got it here. We got everything we need: the ability, the toughness and the smartness to play this game, so there's no doubt we should be the best group."
Though Whitehead is all in on the Jets' revamped secondary, defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich is more circumspect.
"Time will tell," Ulbrich said Wednesday. "In this league, especially in the current landscape of pass-happy every week, it's huge to have a revamped secondary. … With a good secondary, you can be a pretty good defense in this league."