Intelligent and versatile.
The description of safety Jermaine Whitehead is one cherished by coaches, and a huge reason he’s been one of the standout players throughout the Browns’ organized team activities. Whitehead (5-foot-11, 195 pounds) has gone from afterthought to important piece, spending tons of time with the first-team defense.
“He is a guy that is very smart and that can play multiple positions,” new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said. “It is really just plug and play with him. I like what he is doing and, most importantly, his leadership.”
Whitehead, 26, was undrafted out of Auburn in 2014 and spent time with the 49ers and Ravens before landing with the Packers, who rotated between signing him, cutting him and putting him on the practice squad. He finally stuck in October 2017 and started two of seven games last season — 20 tackles, a sack, two passes defensed and two tackles for loss — before being cut at midseason after being ejected for an open-hand slap to the face mask of Patriots lineman David Andrews.
The Browns claimed him off waivers Nov. 7 and he saw action in seven games, mostly on special teams. If the spring practices are an accurate indication, Whitehead will have a much larger role on defense this fall.
He’s spent a lot of time as the first-team nickelback and took the strong safety spot when Morgan Burnett missed time with an injury.
“I’m just being a jack-of-all trades,” Whitehead said during OTAs. “The bright thing about me as a player, I can learn a lot of positions and know a lot of deep things about the defense.”
Whitehead is ahead of the curve mastering Wilks’ scheme, and cornerback Denzel Ward joined the coaching staff in complimenting him for it.
“He’s shown a lot of range back there, a lot of communication,” Ward said. “That’s what you like as a corner — somebody that’s going to talk to you, get you the right information and in the right coverage and everything. I’m liking Whitehead back there.”
Although Wilks said nothing is solidified, the starting safety spots seem spoken for with Burnett and free safety Damarious Randall. But with the prevalence of spread formations on offense and the need for defenses to counter with speed, Whitehead could see a lot of action in three-safety formations.
New pass game coordinator/secondary coach Joe Whitt is also an Auburn alum and spent the previous 11 years with the Packers, so he’s got a deep knowledge of Whitehead and his skill set.
“He probably played the safety position the best for us last year,” Whitt said of the Packers. “We didn’t play very good defense, but he was a very important part of what we were doing, and he’s going to be a very important part of what we’re doing here.
“He’s valuable. He’s tough. He’s physical. He can play close to the line. He can cover tight ends. I’ve been pleased with what he brings to the defense.”
The Green Bay connection only starts with Whitt. Assistant general manager Eliot Wolf and vice president of player personnel Alonzo Highsmith came from the Packers, and Randall and Burnett played there prior to last season.
“They always wanted me to play when I was out there, always told me to keep my head up, be ready when the time comes, things like that,” Whitehead said of Wolf and Highsmith. “So I think they know I can play football.”
Being reunited with his former teammates makes him feel comfortable, and vice versa.
“We’ve already got our inside terminology and language and we know how each other moves,” he said.
Whitehead believes he was turning a corner last year before getting cut by the Packers. He sees even greater opportunity with the Browns.
“This is the breakthrough point of my career,” he said. “I’m in the right place to do it, around a lot of great players, a lot of great people, and I plan on holding my end of the bargain.”
Whitt says his defensive backs will be ballhawks, and Whitehead had nine interceptions at Auburn, including six as a senior. He ran a 4.59 40 before the draft with a vertical jump of 37 inches and a broad jump of 10-8.
He described himself as having “a lot of spunk” about his game and doesn’t stop there.
“Just being the ultimate playmaker, even if I don’t make the play, I can help a teammate make the play,” he said. “Definitely great around the line of scrimmage, great when the ball is in the air.
“I don’t like to really brag on myself. I’d rather prove it. Hopefully when the season comes I’ll be something to watch.”