Niners hedge bets while keeping Whiting

With their defensive line in sad shape, the 49ers need a player like Brandon Whiting. So on Sunday, they made the most logical decision regarding the seventh-year defensive lineman's uncertain status. After he passed a physical with the team, the Niners kept Whiting instead of sending him back to the Philadelphia Eagles, even if he might not be ready to play by the season opener. But they didn't keep Whiting without first hedging their bets.

In fact, if Whiting isn't ready to play a week from now in the Sept. 12 season opener against Atlanta, the Niners will start adding to their draft class of 2005.

In a deal struck with the Eagles on Sunday - the deadline for when the Niners could have sent back Whiting to Philadelphia in exchange for the Eagles' third-round draft pick next spring - the Niners, in keeping Whiting, will receive a 2005 seventh-round pick from the Eagles if Whiting is on the inactive or reserve list for next week's game because of his shoulder injury.

Whiting, who underwent surgery in April to repair both sides of a torn labrum in his left shoulder, hasn't practiced with the team since he joined the Niners after a March 16 trade that sent disgruntled receiver Terrell Owens to Philadelphia.

If Whiting is on the inactive or reserve list for the first two, three or four games of the regular season, the Niners would receive the Eagles' sixth-round pick in next year's draft. And, if Whiting is on the inactive or reserve list for the first five games or more of this season, the Eagles would have to part with a fifth-round pick next April.

You might think the Niners would be tempted to simply hold Whiting out for the first five games and take the extra fifth-round pick, but they're not. Coach Dennis Erickson said Whiting will return to practice on Monday when the Niners - after three consecutive off days for players - get back to work in preparation for their opener against Atlanta.

"He passed his physical and he will start practicing," Erickson said. "We will work him in slowly and see exactly where he is at. As time goes on, I will be able to give you a better idea when he can play, whether it is against Atlanta or New Orleans (Sept. 19) or whenever that may be. We do not know that for sure. But we will work him into the physical football aspects of the game."

The reason for urgency regarding Whiting's return - instead of just keeping him inactive for five weeks to grab the extra fifth-rounder, which still might happen - is that the Niners need Whiting. And they need him desperately.

San Francisco's defensive line is in shambles behind the starting front four, which didn't quite look very stout during the preseason in its own right. With second-year end Andrew Williams out until at least mid-October with a broken leg, the Niners are unproven at best at end behind starters John Engelberger and Andre Carter.

Whiting immediately would give the Niners an end who does some things better than either starter and could push both for playing time. Although it's not his strength, Whiting - at 6-foot-3 and 285 pounds - also can slide inside and play tackle in some defensive packages. When healthy, he could immediately challenge to be San Francisco's top backup option at tackle.

When asked if the team needs Whiting for strength and depth along the defensive line, Erickson responded, "Without question."

"His addition to our roster and him playing is going to add a lot to our defensive front," Erickson continued. "It gives us three and four defensive ends along with John and Andre that can add some things. It gives us the flexibility with Riddick Parker to move him inside or outside. it just gives us a presence physically out there, plus an inside pass rusher in nickel. So, he really adds a lot to our defense."

Whiting's ability to stop the run - a major weakness for the Niners' defensive line this season - also played a big factor in the Niners keeping him around.

"Sure it is," Erickson said. "But those things (are) why we decided, when we had the opportunity to get him with the T.O. situation, that we decided to take him because he can do that. He can add to the run and is very stout against the run and he can do some things for us there."

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