Salaam will fill in for Pearson

When he hobbled out of the Jacksonville Jaguars locker room on crutches Sunday evening, starting left offensive tackle Mike Pearson acknowledged he assumed the worst about his injured left knee, and on Monday his fears were concerned.

An MRI examination of the left knee revealed torn ligaments, and the third-year veteran will undergo season-ending surgery to repair the damage. It is not certain yet how many ligaments, and which of the four in the knee, will be repaired.

Seven-year veteran Ephraim Salaam, signed in the offseason as an unrestricted free agent, will replace Pearson in the lineup.

Team officials were purposely vague Sunday night about the extent of the injury, which occurred in the third quarter, but the sentiment in the Jacksonville locker room was that Pearson would not return this season. On Monday, coach Jack Del Rio allowed that it was "safe to assume" Pearson will be placed on injured reserve.

The loss of Pearson is a major blow to the Jaguars, who are emerging as 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.

Salaam, 28, is one of the league's quirkier performers, but he has valuable experience as a starter and is a very capable replacement. The Jaguars signed him, 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 1½ quarters on Sunday, he did a creditable job working against Indianapolis star pass rusher Dwight Freeney.

Williams, who missed a portion of the fourth quarter on Sunday with cramps, was fine on Monday. The Jaguars may audition free agent tackles in the next week or so. They may also give veteran Mike Compton, who is normally a guard but who played right tackle Sunday when Williams left the game, more snaps at tackle.

There is also an outside possibility that tight end Kyle Brady, who missed the first four games of the season with a finger injury but is close to returning to action, could get some practice time at offensive tackle.

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