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Sunday, March 19, 2006
Arbiter to hear Hutchinson dispute Monday

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

One way or another, Steve Hutchinson is going to be the richest guard in NFL history, and one of the highest paid offensive linemen at any position.

Steve Hutchinson
Hutchinson

But where Hutchinson plays in 2006 and beyond, and which team gets to sign his $49 million in paychecks over the next seven years, is still a matter of debate.

And one that could be settled in a Monday arbitration session in Philadelphia.

It was determined this weekend that "special master" Stephen Burbank, the University of Pennsylvania law professor who serves as the final word in many key contractual disputes, has jurisdiction over a claim filed on Friday by the Seattle Seahawks about the seven-year contract Hutchinson signed with the Minnesota Vikings last Sunday.

Burbank will convene a Monday hearing, and his resolution of the case, which all sides hope is a fairly expeditious one, likely will determine if Hutchinson stays in Seattle or moves on to the Vikings. Both teams prefer a quick ruling so they can move on with their offseason plans.

At issue is a so-called "poison pill" clause that the Vikings included in the contract. It stipulates that Hutchinson must be the highest paid offensive lineman on his team after the first year of the contract and that, if he isn't, the entire contract becomes guaranteed. The provision is a difficult one for the Seahawks, who have the right to match the Minnesota offer, because offensive tackle Walter Jones is the team's highest paid lineman and would be even if Hutchinson were on the Seattle roster.

Less than 2 percent of NFL contracts are fully guaranteed and those are usually limited to quarterbacks or other players at skill positions. Having to guarantee Hutchinson's contract would break new ground.

Seattle representatives at the hearing will contest that the guarantee provision in the contract is not a principal term of the deal. They will argue that the Seahawks should be able to match the financial terms of the contract, and to retain Hutchinson, who was designated a transitional player last month. Hutchinson and the Vikings, who will be primarily represented by NFL Players Association attorneys, will contest that the clause is a valid one and is not an attempt to circumvent the collective bargaining agreement.

Indications are that the Seahawks are prepared to match the seven-year, $49 million contract, assuming they are not bound by the provision guaranteeing the contract. Although the deal carries a 2006 salary cap charge of about $13 million, Seattle has sufficient cap space to absorb such a huge hit, and still have room to make other offseason moves. What the Seahawks hope to avoid is having to guarantee the entire contract.

If Burbank rules in favor of Hutchinson, a three-time Pro Bowl performer regarded by many as the top guard in the league, the Seahawks may decide not to match the offer. In that scenario, Hutchinson, a first-round pick in the 2001 draft, would play for Minnesota, and the Seahawks would not receive any draft-choice compensation from the Vikings.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.