Just three days after losing star left guard Steve Hutchinson in a convoluted and contentious case that went to arbitration, the Seattle Seahawks on Thursday afternoon found a potential successor in a young blocker who doesn't even play the same position.
The Seahawks reached agreement with unrestricted free agent Tom Ashworth, a four-year veteran who had played his entire career with the New England Patriots, on a five-year contract. Complete financial details were not immediately available, but Ashworth will earn $4.5 million in total compensation for 2006, counting his signing bonus and base salary.
The Seahawks' brass seems confident that Ashworth will earn a starting spot on their offensive line, although no one seems to know where he will line up.
The obvious opening is at left guard, with Hutchinson having departed to the Minnesota Vikings after the three-time Pro Bowl blocker signed a seven-year, $49 million offer sheet as a transition free agent. Seattle challenged some of the terms of the offer but a "special master," essentially the top arbitrator in NFL labor matters, ruled against the Seahawks on a critical clause in the deal.
Ashworth, the No. 39 player in ESPN.com's free agent rankings, has played primarily at right tackle. But he has also started at guard and could be a candidate to fill the vacancy created by Hutchinson's departure. There is also a possibility that Ashworth could play right tackle and the incumbent starter there, two-year veteran Sean Locklear, could move to left guard.
However the offensive line puzzle shakes out -- and Seattle coaches will have ample time this spring to experiment with various combinations -- Ashworth likely will be among the Seahawks' top five blockers and will find a spot in the lineup.
Ashworth, 28, is the kind of tough, blue-collar blocker the Seahawks like. At the same time, as a former college tight end, Ashworth possesses solid athletic skills. Perhaps the only drawback is that Ashworth has had to battle through some injuries in the past, particularly a back problem that forced him onto the injured reserve list in 2004 after only six games. He bounced back to start 11 games in 2005.
A former Colorado standout, Ashworth signed with the Pats as an undrafted college free agent in 2001, spent his rookie year on the practice squad, then earned a roster spot in 2002. He has appeared in 37 games and started 30 of them in his career.
Most teams viewed Ashworth in free agency as a blocker who was lesser-known than many of the offensive linemen in the talent pool, but whose skills continue to develop, and whose best football is ahead of him. In addition to Seattle, which only became a suitor earlier this week, Ashworth visited with officials from Miami, Tampa Bay and the New York Jets.