Whitfield likely signed veteran minimum

Updated: October 6, 2004, 3:36 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Undermanned at offensive tackle because of the season-ending knee injury sustained by starter Mike Pearson last Sunday, the Jacksonville Jaguars signed former Atlanta Falcons star Bob Whitfield on Tuesday to bolster the position.

The Jaguars, as anticipated, placed Pearson on injured reserve, ending his season. Pearson will undergo surgery to repair torn ligaments in his left knee once the swelling subsides.

Whitfield, 32, was released by the Falcons in the final wholesale roster reduction to the NFL-mandated limit of 53 players. The 13th-year veteran declined the opportunity to return three weeks ago to the Falcons, when successor Kevin Shaffer was injured, because Atlanta officials would not guarantee his salary for the entire 2004 season.

It is not known if the Jaguars made such a guarantee but, given Whitfield's lucrative outside business interests, it is difficult to imagine him playing again without such an assurance. He likely signed a one-year contract for the veteran minimum base salary of $760,000, prorated over the balance of the season.

A first-round choice of the Falcons in the 1992 draft, the former Stanford star was a stalwart on the Atlanta offensive line, appearing in 178 games. He established a club record with 123 consecutive starts (1993-2000) and, in all, started in 167 contests. Last season, Whitfield appeared in a career-low eight games, spending the second half of the campaign on injured reserve after suffering a fracture to his right fibula.

One of the NFL's premier pass protectors during his best years in Atlanta, Whitfield clearly isn't the player he once was, and could not make a Falcons roster this summer that could have used another veteran tackle. But there is a suspicion he still has something left and feels he has something to prove.

Whitfield is a very successful record producer as well and his Patchwerk Studio, located near downtown Atlanta, has become a place where many high-profile acts come to record. Whitfield rebuffed several opportunities to sign elsewhere in recent weeks, but apparently he found the Jacksonville opportunity an appealing one.

He will be reunited in Jacksonville with former Falcons teammate Ephraim Salaam, who replaces Pearson at left tackle in the starting lineup. If nothing else, the combination of Whitfield and Salaam, two of the funniest players in recent NFL history, will make for a pretty loose environment.

The loss of Pearson is a major blow to the Jaguars, who are emerging has a legitimate playoff contender at 3-1, and a setback to one of only three offensive line units in the NFL to return the same five starters in 2004 as lined up last season. Pearson moved into the starting lineup as a rookie and the former University of Florida standout has been a fixture ever since on the left side.

A second-round choice in 2002, Pearson has appeared in 36 games with 31 starts. The injury will snap his streak of 31 consecutive starts. Pearson, 24, should be rehabilitated in time for training camp next summer.

Regarded as an excellent run-blocker when he entered the league, Pearson has improved dramatically as a pass protector the last two seasons. Certainly he has raised the level of his consistency.

The Jaguars signed Salaam, 28, this summer, in part to push both their young tackles, Pearson and Maurice Williams, but he could not oust them in camp from their starting jobs. Team officials knew, however, that he was a valuable insurance policy, and now Salaam will have an opportunity to validate that assessment.

In six seasons with Atlanta (1998-2001) and Denver (2002-2003), Salaam appeared in 93 games and started 85 of them. Salaam was released by the Broncos early in the spring for salary cap reasons. He started 14 or more games in four different seasons and has started at both the left and right tackle slots. Playing the final 1 quarters on Sunday, he did a creditable job working against Indianapolis star pass rusher Dwight Freeney.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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