It's official: New England Patriots guard Stephen Neal has retired from professional football at the age of 34. Neal, who was contemplating retirement for the last two offseasons, will hold a conference call to announce his retirement tomorrow.
Neal spent his entire career with the Patriots after the team signed the former NCAA wrestling champ to their practice squad prior to the 2001 season. Neal won three Super Bowl rings with the team, starting 86 career games with 81 starts.
Some thoughts on Neal's legacy after the jump!
In some ways, it's hard to measure where Neal's legacy will stand with the Patriots. He spent his entire ten year career with the team, but missed a lot of time due to injuries. Nonetheless, he was a class act and tough worker. And when healthy, was one of the best guards in the game of football (and if you do not believe me, go back and see for yourself).
Losing Neal, while a big blow to the Patriots offensive line, was somewhat expected considering his injury history and flirtation with retirement last offseason. Still, his retirement does make adding a guard all that more important come April's draft. It also becomes even more crucial that the team find a way to negotiate a long term deal with Logan Mankins. Currently, as Logan Mankins remains unsigned in 2011 due to his franchise tender status, the only Patriots guard with extensive starting experience on the roster for next year is Dan Connolly. Connolly has proven capable as a starter, but isn't yet in that elite category. Behind him, Ryan Wendell showed some flashes near the end of the regular season, but doesn't have much real experience to speak for as of yet. Rich Ohrnberger remains a project.
Neal's retirement also serves as a bit of a nostalgic moment for Patriots fans. Although Neal only suited up for one of the team's three Super Bowl victories, he was on the roster for all three. Because of that, Neal was just one of four remaining three time Super Bowl winners left on the Patriots roster. The other three: Tom Brady, Kevin Faulk, and Matt Light. Kevin Faulk will be an unrestricted free agent and could be headed for another team or retirement due to the emergence of Danny Woodhead. Matt Light is also an unrestricted free agent, although I think there's a good chance we'll be seeing him back in a Pats uniform next year. Still, there's a chance that come kickoff 2011, Tom Brady may be the only three time Super Bowl winner left on the Patriots' roster. Kind of scary.
Lastly, good luck to Stephen with all of his post-football career endeavors. Apparently, he's kicked around the idea of joining up the UFC. If so, I may actually tune in!