The former Alabama All-American had played all 459 defensive snaps for the Packers this season, and somebody’s got to get that playing time. It could be Whitehead. But as for an NFL opportunity, the former Auburn standout already got one the old-fashioned way — he earned it.
Undrafted out of Auburn in 2015, Whitehead already had spent time on the practice squads of the Packers and San Francisco 49ers and the active roster of the Baltimore Ravens and been cut three times when he made his NFL debut on special teams with the Packers on Oct. 30, 2016.
But when the Indianapolis Colts’ Jordan Todman returned a kickoff for a touchdown and took another one back for 61 yards in Whitehead’s second game, it was back to the practice squad for the rest of the season.
Whitehead started 2017 on the practice squad, too, but he ended up playing 120 defensive snaps and 190 special-teams plays last season for the Packers.
This season, Whitehead has kept up his special-teams work, with 132 plays. But he’s also been on the field for 206 defensive snaps, mainly as a third safety in a hybrid linebacker role with some work as a slot corner, too.
Kentrell Brice had been the Packers’ second safety with Clinton-Dix. Last week against the Los Angeles Rams, Green Bay started Clinton-Dix, Brice and Whitehead in a three-safety alignment, and Whitehead played a career-high 75 defensive snaps. He responded with a career-high seven tackles.
“I think both of those guys have had really good moments,” Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said of Brice and Whitehead after he’d traded Clinton-Dix. “Again, kind of like our team, there’s been some inconsistencies. But I like where they’re trending.”
So when the Packers take the field on defense against the New England Patriots on Sunday night, will Brice and Whitehead be Green Bay’s starting safeties?
The Packers aren’t saying.
“I think it’s based more on game planning,” Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said when asked if Whitehead would take Clinton-Dix’s place. “… It’s an opportunity, and how the game plan shakes out, that’s more for Sunday night. I’m not going to get into who’s playing where. That’s more scheme driven.”
Complicating Whitehead’s bid for the starting spot is a back ailment that caused him to miss practice on Wednesday. He was listed on the injury report as a limited participant on Thursday and Friday and has a questionable designation for Sunday.
Despite what the playing time this season indicates, the Packers have other options to replace Clinton-Dix.
Safety Josh Jones started seven games as a rookie in 2017. But after being beaten out for a starting spot by Brice this season, Jones has played only four defensive snaps in 2018.
New England coach Bill Belichick told reporters he expected Whitehead or Jones to step in for Clinton-Dix.
Tramon Williams has started every game at cornerback for the Packers this season. But the 12-year veteran has NFL experience at safety, including in 2015 with Cleveland, when current Green Bay defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was the Browns’ head coach.
Williams told reporters he’ll play some safety on Sunday, and moving him would allow the Packers to get promising rookie cornerback Jaire Alexander on the field more.
“I feel good about our group,” McCarthy said of the Packers’ secondary options. “I think it’s obvious if you’ve seen us play now on defense we have multiple personnel groups, so I think it’s most important to the players that now have opportunities there to play, particularly at safety. … I’m excited to see these guys step up and take advantage of the opportunity.”
The Packers and Patriots kick off at 7:20 p.m. CST Sunday at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. NBC will televise the game.
Whitehead was a starting safety for Auburn in 2012 and 2013, but he missed four games and was confined to special-teams work for two others as a senior after getting into an argument with secondary coach Charlie Harbison.
Mark Inabinett is a sports reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter at @AMarkG1.
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