|Taking a closer look at what the retirement of Stephen Neal means to the Patriots||03.02.11 at 9:08 pm ET|
It seems like we just went through this the other day, but an eventful offseason for the Patriots’ offensive line just got even more interesting on Wednesday night when the team announced that veteran offensive lineman Stephen Neal will retire after 10 seasons with the franchise.
Neal was never a Pro Bowler, but was a sturdy, solid presence at right guard since he emerged as the starter at the position in 2004. A former college wrestling star that never played a lick of football while a collegian at Cal-State Bakersfield, he was a clear favorite of Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who loved reminiscing about the time Neal first showed up on the practice field.
“When I tell you he didn’t know where the field was, he didn’t know where the field was,” Belichick remarked with a smile a few years ago. “He didn’t know how to put his pads on. He didn’t know where to line up. We’re starting from below scratch.”
But Neal persevered, making his way off the practice squad and into the starting lineup for the first time in 2002. After a shoulder injury put him on the shelf for an extended period shortly after that, he landed in the starting lineup in 2004, and spent the better part of the last seven years as a fixture at right guard. (For more on Neal’s career, click here.)
“It is a wonderful story about a guy that, with hard work, dedication, overcoming the setbacks if the injuries and lack of playing experience, has turned into, really, a good football player,” Belichick said.
Without Neal, the focus will likely turn to Dan Connolly, who did an admirable job filling on for Logan Mankins while Mankins sat out the first part of the 2010 season because he was unhappy about his contract situation. (He also took over at right guard after Neal went down with a shoulder injury midway through last season.) Connolly has filled in at all three interior line spots, and is looked at as a versatile and solid presence. In addition, the Patriots will likely turn to Ryan Wendell, who filled in when Connolly was on the shelf for a few games because of a concussion he suffered in a win over the Packers.
In addition, the Patriots will almost be forced to look closer at offensive line options in this year’s draft. Neal’s retirement, paired with the possibility that longtime left tackle Matt Light — who was signed through the 2010 season — has also played his last game in New England (two players who date back to the 2001 season) could force the Patriots to spend one of their first three picks (New England has three choices in the Top 33, more than any other team) on an elite young offensive lineman.
However, the winner in this scenario might be Nick Kaczur. Kaczur has reportedly been asked to take a pay cut by the team — according to the Boston Herald, he refused, and will likely be released as a result. But if he’s healthy, Kaczur’s positional versatility and knowledge of the system could make him an ideal fit to replace Neal at the right guard spot. A part-time tackle the last time he played, he’s lined up at both tackle and guard, and was originally ticketed to take over Mankins’ left guard spot before he went down with a back injury last summer. If Neal is no longer in the picture, Kaczur’s bargaining power with New England may have gotten a boost.
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