PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Yesterday Pitt safety Jordan Whitehead became the second Panther to announce his decision to forego his final season and enter his name into the 2018 NFL Draft, joining fellow junior Quadree Henderson. Pittsburgh Sports Now caught up with FanRag Sports NFL Draft analyst Joe Marino to get his thoughts on the two Panthers’ draft prospects.
From a physical standpoint, scouts have felt the Central Valley product has been ready for the league since his freshman season. It’s his growth on the field that has led Marino to believe Whitehead is one of the top five safeties in this class.
“He’s going to be able to fill that centerfielder type role for a NFL team,” Marino said. “Which is something that is very much-needed in today’s NFL. A lot of guys are good box safeties, physical guys who can come down and really attack the line of scrimmage, but Whitehead gives you ability to cover ground on the backend.”
Marino said it’s that ability to cover ground and to play the football in the air is what will make Whitehead a high-end draft pick.
“I think that blend of ball skills, athleticism, and just that range he is going to offer is going to make him very desirable,” Marino said.
He cited the Duke game as a specific example of Whitehead’s ball skills. The junior had the game-clinching interception on the Blue Devils’ final offensive possession, securing a 24-17 Pitt victory.
Marino believes Whitehead still needs seasoning, though, once he reaches the NFL but thinks he can help teams immediately in the right package.
“You can put him in man situations with tight ends, bigger slot receivers,” Marino said. “You could ask him to be a single-high safety and keep everything in front of him and take good angles to the football in the air or breaking forward, but when you’re asking him to play against bunch routes…that something I think he needs to work on.”
Marino listed the North Carolina game as an example where the Pitt coaching staff appeared to keep Whitehead away from the Tar Heels’ stacked receiver sets, a telling sign he still needs to work on anticipating routes pre-snap.
Marino also stressed that Whitehead will have to address character issues during the draft process. He was suspended for the team’s first three games of the 2017 season for undisclosed violation of team rules.
“Obviously, there’s some character concerns teams will have to vet and decide how they’re going to account that into their evaluation,” Marino said. “But from an on-field perspective, I think he’s a really good football player.”
Marino said it’s too early to project exactly where Whitehead might be selected until the safety class fully takes shape. Underclassmen Derwin James from Florida State and DeShon Elliott from Texas have declared to their intentions to leave school early, and Alabama juniors Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison are two other names to closely monitor. Nonetheless, Marino believes Whitehead will go in the first three rounds of April’s draft.
While many expected Whitehead to make the leap to the NFL, Henderson’s decision caught many by surprise, including Marino.
“If you want a fast return guy, then that’s your appeal of him,” Marino said of Henderson. “But in terms of getting him involved in the structure of an offense, it’s not something Henderson has done very well, and he’s doesn’t offer much in terms of size.”
Marino said Henderson’s production in the return game hasn’t really translated to the offense despite Pitt’s attempts to feed him the ball on jet sweeps and handoffs. He also added undersized fast receivers are fairly common in the NFL now, which could hurt Henderson’s draft stock.
“I get nervous about what he offers versus the NFL’s evaluation of his type of player,” Marino said. “I don’t know if this is going to be a day one or day two pick. I think Henderson may have been best served developing as a receiver, proving he can be that guy next year at Pitt…I don’t think he captured himself at the peak of his production and really missed an opportunity.”
Henderson can bolster his draft stock, though, with a strong showing during individual workouts, specifically in the 40-yard dash. Players such as Darrius Heyward-Bey continue to get opportunities around the league based on that metric alone.
“If he goes to the NFL Combine and runs in the 4.3’s, he’ll get drafted,” Marino said of the Pitt return man. “That’s probably the most important thing Quadree Henderson can do—is validate his speed. He’s not going to get taller, so he’s got to show his time speed is as good as his play speed, and that’s going to get people’s attention.”