Scout.com has confirmed that the Patriots are probably going to have to replace right tackle Tom Ashworth. According to a league source, the team will likely pass on re-signing the veteran tackle who is set to become an unrestricted free agent on March 3. With left tackle Matt Light returning from injury, Ashworth's role would be reduced and the former Colorado Buffalo wants to be a starter.
Ashworth has been bothered by injuries the last couple of seasons. He fought back ailments in 2004 that forced him to the sideline and eventually landed him on the injured reserve list. In 2005 he missed some time with a leg injury and was replaced by Brandon Gorin.
Sources tell Patriots Insider that offensive guard Stephen Neal, who will also become a free agent on March 3rd, is someone the team would like to keep. The discouraging news for that to happen is that the team hasn't made re-signing the former Cal State Bakersfield wrestler to a new deal. He is viewed as a depth talent, as the team looks to become bigger and more athletic along the line.
Talent at the guard spot will be in high demand in free agency. Neal could find a number of suitors looking for a versatile backup who may actually move into a starting role during the season. Joe Andruzzi parlayed his tenure as a starting guard for the Patriots into a solid deal in free agency playing for the Browns. Neal may also try to do the same, although he is not considered as good a lineman as Andruzzi.
Another lineman on the list of Patriots headed toward free agency is tackle Ross Tucker. Tucker was a surprise cut by the Bills in 2004, and was out of football after spending a brief time with the Dallas Cowboys. The Patriots signed Tucker in December of 2005 to address their offensive line depth issues - related to Ashworth and Light's injuries.
Tucker's agent Joe Linta told Patriots Insider that the team is interested in re-signing the veteran lineman, and both sides were negotiating at the time. Tucker can play center or guard, and spent some time at tackle as well. That type of versatility is what the Patriots look for in their players.
Tucker will probably not get a deal done before free agency, but it is not something the team should have trouble getting done if they want him back.
Matt Light and Dan Koppen pose other concerns for the team. With both players ending the season on the injured reserve list, it's possible one or both may need to be have ongoing injury concerns. Light showed progress in his rehab from a broken leg, but suffered a setback late in the season and the team put him on the shelf to allow him to recover fully. With a hefty contract and an equally hefty cap number, Light is fully expected back to man the left tackle position he's had. Koppen, who suffered a separated shoulder, is also expected back. The loss of both players exposed the lack of quality depth the team had. They are interested in addressing both the depth and the talent level across the line.
Patriots Insider reported at the Senior Bowl that the Patriots were courting offensive linemen. Among the names on the list were: guards Charles Spencer and Will Allen, tackles Marcus McNeill, Ryan O'Callaghan and Jonathan Scott, and centers Mick Degory and Ryan Cook.
The thought that the team might pursue linemen via free agency seems to have lost some momentum. They waited to make any decisions on players until they knew what the CBA would hold, and with talks at a standstill, it is unlikely that the team would make a big splash in the open market.
Scout.com is reporting that a number of other teams are in the throws of dealing with line issues. It's possible some of these will affect the Patriots free agent acquisitions, but unlikely when factoring in the players they appear to be targeting in the Draft.
For now, Patriots Insiders expect to see Neal and Ashworth in different uniforms next season. New England will certainly have a revamped offensive line including possibly two new faces for 2006.
Stay tuned for more news on the changes to this unit as the off-season progresses.
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