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Tahir Whitehead has big shoes to fill on Panthers' defense

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Stephen A. has the perfect team in mind for Cam Newton (1:44)

Stephen A. Smith makes a case for Cam Newton and the Chargers joining forces following his release from the Panthers. (1:44)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Birds chirped softly in the background Monday as Tahir Whitehead chatted with reporters via a video conference call from the quiet of his backyard in Atlanta. The new Carolina Panthers linebacker said he would have been drowned out by the noise had he done the call inside, where his four boys -- ages 11, 5, 2 and a newborn -- were occupying themselves during the COVID-19 shutdown.

It would have been like last Tuesday, when the one-year, $2.5 million deal Whitehead signed was drowned out by the noise created when quarterback Cam Newton was released.

But the Whitehead signing is significant for the 2020 Panthers.

The surprise retirement of middle linebacker Luke Kuechly in January certainly altered the plans of new coach Matt Rhule. Losing the seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker at age 28 left such a big hole in the defense that it triggered a complete overhaul.

Whitehead, released by the Las Vegas Raiders on March 18 to save approximately $6 million in cap space, is expected to be first up to replace Kuechly.

He even wears the same jersey number (No. 59) as Kuechly, although he hasn’t discussed with the team whether that number will be available or taken out of circulation.

“It would be different for people to see me in the number," Whitehead said. “At the end of the day, we’re going to see how that goes. Just go from there. I’m not too hung up on the number."

Whitehead also isn’t hung up on playing middle linebacker if the Panthers opt to move him outside. But with Shaq Thompson already a mainstay outside and other capable candidates to fill the opposite side in Carolina’s 4-3 scheme, middle seems the best place for the soon-to-be 30-year-old Whitehead.

“I would have loved to even played with him," Whitehead said of Kuechly. “That’s one of the guys I’ve admired from afar. I’m just trying to get in where I fit in, offer the leadership that I’ll be able to bring to the table."

Whitehead has played inside and outside since being selected by Detroit in the fifth round out of Temple in 2012, the same year Kuechly was the ninth overall pick.

Like Kuechly, Whitehead has been called a “tackling machine," collecting 108 or more tackles in each of the past four years.

He also has the advantage of being familiar with Rhule, who was an offensive assistant for the Owls during Whitehead’s college career from 2008 to 2011.

“He’s a players' coach," Whitehead said. “He loves to have fun. He loves to see guys engaged. He’s innovative in ways to keep guys engaged."

One moment in particular stood out to Whitehead.

“One practice we were about to get ready for warm-ups and from out of nowhere he comes out with a helmet and shoulder pads on," he said of Rhule. “I remember looking at him, like, ‘Hey, this guy is crazy.’ I forget which guy he was going up against, but I would say he was probably about twice Matt’s size. Matt says he didn’t care. We’ve got to show you guys how to get going."

Next thing you know, Rhule was firing players up for the “bull in the ring" drill in which one player is in the middle of a circle and other players are called on to tackle him.

“I was like, ‘OK, this is the type you want to have on your team and go to battle for because he’s invested in the team,’" Whitehead said. “He showed exactly that way back when."

Whitehead is invested in proving he still can play at a high level and is equal to the task of replacing Kuechly, the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

“I haven’t quite reached my peak yet," Whitehead said. “I’m going to go out there and make sure I continue to elevate my game."