Yesterday, the Jets announced that they have claimed former Dallas Cowboys receiver and return specialist Lucky Whitehead off waivers. We're going to consider what Whitehead brings to the table.
The 25-year-old Whitehead is listed at 5-foot-9, 180 pounds, and was an undrafted free agent out of Florida Atlantic in 2015. He has caught just nine passes in his NFL career, but has racked up 255 yards from scrimmage and seen plenty of action returning kicks and punts.
Whitehead was a wide receiver and cornerback in high school before eventually arriving at Florida Atlantic as a junior college transfer in 2013.
In 2013, he only had 13 offensive touches in seven games but did contribute 225 yards and three scores, while also returning kicks. In 2014, he had a breakout campaign with 76 receptions, 916 yards from scrimmage and eight total touchdowns. He was also fifth in the nation with a 16.4 yards per punt return average, including a 73-yard score in his last game.
Despite this, Whitehead went undrafted in 2015 and was signed by the Cowboys after the draft. He managed to hold down a primary kick returner role over his two seasons with the team, also seeing rotational and special package work on offense.
While he wasn't featured much in the passing game, Whitehead got a lot of carries, mostly on jet sweeps. In total, he racked up 255 yards on 29 touches in regular season action and another 122 yards and a touchdown on 15 touches in preseason action.
As a return man, he posted a solid but unspectacular 25.6 yard kick return average. On punts, he has averaged below seven yards per return, although he improved to 7.8 yards per return in 2016.
If you widen the sample size by including preseason, Whitehead's numbers are a lot more impressive as he averaged over 30 yards per kick return in 2015 and had a 101-yard touchdown in 2016. He also averaged a respectable 11.5 yards on punt returns in two preseason campaigns.
Whitehead's best games with the Cowboys were against the Jets in 2015, where he racked up a career-best 181 all-purpose yards in a 19-16 loss and against the Packers last year where he had a 26 yard run and a 35 yard catch in a Dallas win.
The Cowboys released Whitehead amid some off-field distractions and the Jets claimed him off waivers.
Let's move onto some further analysis of what Whitehead brings to the table, based on in-depth research and film study.
Whitehead impressed with a sub-4.4 40-yard dash at his pro day although the rest of his speed, agility and explosiveness numbers were about average.
However, despite his small size, he posted an above average 20 bench press reps.
Whitehead is mostly considered as a slot receiver type, although he also saw a lot of action out wide, often in motion. Only three of his nine NFL catches have come while lined up in the slot.
As noted, he was often used to run jet sweeps, but he would also motion into a tight end position and sometimes line up or motion into the backfield. In college, he would sometimes line up at halfback to run toss sweeps.
Whitehead hasn't shown much ability to get downfield at the NFL level and it wasn't a major part of his game in college either.
Here was a play where he got downfield for a catch, although this was more because he leaked out on a play action look on third and short than through any kind of deep separation ability:
That likely would have been a bigger gain had he not had to slow up to catch the pass.
Based on his film, Whitehead doesn't display much in the way of natural route running abilities.
From his college film his natural quickness can make him a useful option on slant routes or in zone coverage, but he didn't display much in terms of beating man to man coverages.
This was his only offensive touchdown at the NFL level, from a preseason game. As you can see, he isn't open but breaks to an open area on the crossing route as the quarterback extends the play:
Whitehead has caught nine of 10 targets at the NFL level and only had one drop in 29 targets including preseason action. However, he doesn't really look like a natural pass catcher and hasn't been a player who has made many highlight reel-type grabs, although he did share this video on twitter:
His hands are not flawless. He dropped a handful of passes in his final year of college, including this one:
Yards after the catch
As you'd expect for someone who moonlights as a kick returner, Whitehead has an ability to make guys miss and break into the clear once you get the ball into his hands. He's also not afraid to put his head down to fight to get to the marker. The fact that Dallas would run jet sweeps with him speaks to their desire to get the ball into his hands.
One recurring issue with Whitehead is ball security, as he doesn't always protect the ball and can be liable to have it stripped or knocked away from him in the tackle:
Whitehead doesn't have great size and can be overpowered in blocking situations but he seems to give a good effort, albeit that he doesn't contribute much in this area.
Here's a play where he motions to the offensive tackle's shoulder and executes a block well at the second level, although the play fails anyway. This was something he was required to do from time to time, with mixed results:
While he isn't very big, Whitehead isn't afraid to go over the middle, fights for tough yardage and gives a good effort when blocking. He might broaden his game if he could be more physical when running routes to gain separation.
He's only had two penalties at the NFL level, one for illegal motion and the other for holding. He's also drawn two penalties for unnecessary roughness.
Whitehead's open field instincts are pretty good and he displays good vision as a ball carrier. Notice how well he follows his blocks here:
He perhaps doesn't display the same kind of instincts as a receiver, although as shown on one of the plays above, he showed an ability to extend his route to find an open area.
As noted earlier, Whitehead's regular season numbers are okay, but he's shown more flashes of potential in preseason action, including this touchdown on the opening kickoff in last season's first preseason game:
One thing worth noting is that Whitehead has only muffed one punt in two years and was immediately able to fall on the ball. However, as already noted, ball security in the tackle can be an issue with him:
In terms of his general decision making as a punt returner, he usually makes good decisions although there were a few plays where he lost ground trying to make a big play and also he unwisely fielded one punt at his goal line and got tackled inside the 10. When he fields the ball, he is capable of this kind of dynamic play, though:
Other than returning kicks and punts, Whitehead hasn't contributed on special teams.
Whitehead's best chance of making the team in the short term will be to lock down a return role. If he starts contributing on offense then it will be the likes of Jalin Marshall and ArDarius Stewart that he'll be taking reps away from.
Whitehead has been in the news during the offseason with a couple of off-field incidents that weren't necessarily his fault. His release came after a warrant was issued for his arrest because he missed a court date. However, that turned out to be related to a case of mistaken identity. This came just weeks after his dog was stolen and held to ransom.
The problem is that these issues piled more distractions on to some previous off-field concerns with Whitehead, whose grip on a roster spot was already looking extremely tenuous due to the emergence of rookie Ryan Switzer. The team obviously didn't trust Whitehead's version of events due to some of the things that had happened in the past and, although they were criticized for the circumstances surrounding his release, their contention that this was not the only reason behind it holds up under scrutiny.
The most high-profile issue from his past came last December when Whitehead was suspended for one game for breaking team rules. It was reported that he was out partying at 2 a.m. and then didn't show up for meetings the next day.
Clearly Whitehead will need to be on his best behavior with the Jets to alleviate any concerns they might have over his maturity levels.
Whitehead has only missed two games in his pro career, one due to the suspension noted above. However, he missed time during OTA's in May after suffering a hamstring injury. He suffered just a minor cut to his arm in a September 2016 car crash.
Whitehead may have been a controversial pick-up, but ultimately he's unlikely to be a high profile addition. He'll compete with several other players for a return role and Marshall's suspension gives him a realistic shot at a potential four-week audition returning punts but it's a low-risk and (probably) low-reward move.
That said, since Brisly Estime's injury it doesn't seem like an obvious return candidate has emerged, so it makes sense to throw another contender into the mix. Jordan Todman was a good addition in terms of being a kickoff return option, but the punt return role remains unfilled.
Should he make the team in a return role, then there's no reason why the team wouldn't seek to give him some offensive touches just as the Cowboys did from time to time over the past few years. However, he'll also need to convince the team that he's been working on his ball security.