Jordan Whitehead elevates his game, returns to the Bucs

TAMPA — Jordan Whitehead was unhappy when the Bucs didn’t prevent him from leaving to sign as a free agent with the Jets a few years ago.

“When I left, I was bummed out by not being back,” Whitehead said. “Anybody who is a starter is going to feel a certain way.”

On Thursday, the 26-year-old safety made his official return to the Bucs after signing a two-year, $9 million contract. But he warned that Tampa Bay won’t be getting the same player it drafted in 2018 out of Pittsburgh.

The team will be getting a better one.

Once valued only for his run-stopping skills, he’s become more of a ball hawk.

“I was going against Aaron Rodgers every day in (training) camp and that brought another level out of me,” Whitehead said. “I’d say my game elevated just from being in a pass defense, learning to read coverages, learning to read the offenses, reading the quarterback out of the middle of the field. There was just certain stuff that I didn’t get to do as much here because I was in the box so much.

“I was always labeled as a box safety, but my label now wouldn’t say that because I feel comfortable playing man-to-man, playing in the post. I wouldn’t say I prefer it, but it’s always good to sit back and get interceptions and not just be a big hitter. I’m just two years older now, I’m smarter, wiser. I go home and watch film with the coaches and it’s a part of my game that I love.”

Whitehead was always known for being a thumper in the run game, an intimidating physical presence that could blow up ball carriers while Antoine Winfield Jr. patrolled centerfield. The Bucs never adequately replaced Whitehead, who was a key member of their Super Bowl 55 defense. Players such as Keanu Neal, Logan Ryan and Ryan Neal were inadequate replacements.

Those three players combined for only two interceptions once Whitehead left. Whitehead, meanwhile, led all defensive backs with 32 run stops last season and intercepted six passes over the past two seasons with the Jets.

No game was a better human highlight reel for Whitehead than the Jets’ season opener against the Bills last season. MetLife Stadium was electric for Rodgers’ debut.

But the quarterback suffered a season-ending torn Achilles after just four offensive plays. The Jets prevailed but only because of Whitehead’s heroics. He intercepted Bills quarterback Josh Allen three times.

“That was Aaron’s first game. Him coming out of the tunnel, I’ve never seen a stadium like that — it was night, the lights were on. The atmosphere was crazy,” Whitehead said. “Coming off of Hard Knocks, there were a lot of things that were going on. Josh (Allen) gave me three chances and I came down with three picks. That was my best game probably ever in the league and ever playing football. That was a staple piece for me, to be able to say, ‘If I can’t play the pass, then what is this?’ ”

When Whitehead realized he would become a free agent again, he began posting video on social media of him making plays with not only the Jets, but the Bucs.

That wasn’t unintentional. “I knew it would get back to them,” he said.

General manager Jason Licht didn’t need much prompting. Having spent the offseason trying to re-sign players such as Winfield, Mike Evans, Baker Mayfield, Lavonte David and Chase McLaughlin, it would figure the first free agent joining the Bucs from other teams was originally their own.

“I still watched ball and watched the Bucs games and watched my boys playing,” Whitehead said. “As soon as the season ended, I definitely was still watching their games. They played the Eagles first in the playoffs and I was watching that game. I was just texting my buddies like, ‘They couldn’t read the defense. Coach (Todd) Bowles was pressuring them.’ I was just joking with them, but in reality, I always knew that I wanted to play back in that defense.

“My coaches at the Jets, they were smart, too, and they were great people, it’s just that Bowles is a genius when it comes to football X’s and O’s.”

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