With Neal stepping down, who's stepping in?

With Neal stepping down, who's stepping in?
March 3, 2011, 1:05 am
Share This Post

By TomE. Curran
Stephen Neal was a nice NFL player. And, given where he started from, he had a tremendous career. But at this point, the shoulders he used to pile-drive wrestling opponents and drive-block defensive tackles just couldn't be asked to do it anymore. So, after 10 seasons and almost as many shoulder surgeries, he's wrapping it up. Nealnever played college football, instead preferring to twist the hell out of opposing heavyweight wrestlers while at Cal State-Bakersfield. He won two NCAA Division I national titles and kicked Brock Lesnar's ass while wrestling in college. The Patriots worked him out in 2001, signed him as a rookie free agent, cut him and then signed him off the Eagles practice squad a few months later. In his first career start, he suffered a season-ending wrist injury. And that was kind of his luck. Maybe he was susceptible to injury because he didn't come of age in the game and wasn't natural at knowing how to engage without hurting himself. Maybe he was just unlucky. But he hasn't played a full 16-game season since 2005 and missed 28 games over the past five years, including the final eight this season. He mulled retirement after last year and came back for one more round. When I spoke to him in December of this year, he told me he was rehabbing with an eye on continuing to play. With Neal due a 3 million salary this year, there's a very good chance the Patriots asked him to jump from their roster before they had to push him. So where's that leave the right guard position? Likely in the hands of Dan Connolly. He stepped in for Neal and played well after Neal went down. Earlier in the season, when Logan Mankins was holding out, Connolly held that left guard position down without event. Mankins is, of course, a wild card. If he doesn't sign his franchise tag, the Patriots will need Connolly and someone else to step up to fill their guard void. Other candidates on the roster include: Thomas Austin, a 6-4, 310-pounder from Clemson the Patriots signed to their practice squad last September. Ryan Wendell, a 6-2, 290-pounder who played right guard in place of Connolly (who was playing in place of Neal) when Connolly got concussed in December. Rich Ohrnberger, a 6-2, 300-pounder the Patriots took in the fourth round in 2009. Guardtackle Nick Kaczur has reportedly been asked to take a salary cut if he wants to stick around. The Boston Herald reported he'd be cut if he didn't agree to do so. If he doesn't get lopped, he's in the mix as well. The Patriots' approach at guard has been all over the board. A first-round pick on one side (Mankins), undrafted guys on the other (Connolly, Wendell, Neal). Baylor's 26-year-old former firefighter Danny Watkins, Georgia's 6-5, 315-pound Clint Boling and Wisconsin's nasty-edged John Moffitt are all possible draft targets for the Patriots if they decide to hire from outside the company. Tom E. Curran canbe reached at tcurran@comcastsportsnet.com.Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran