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New England Patriots Links 2/18/10 - Neal Will Test Free Agency; Branch Would Love To Be A Patriot

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<em>Patriots Guard Stephen Neal will play in 2010, hopefully with the Patriots.</em>
Patriots Guard Stephen Neal will play in 2010, hopefully with the Patriots.

Adam Schefter (ESPN) Veteran guard Neal not retiring.  "The Patriots are still interested in retaining his services, but not before Neal at least tests the free-agent market first."

Though some suspected longtime New England Patriots starting guard Stephen Neal was retiring, he is not.

"He's going to be playing," Neal's agent, Neil Cornrich, said in brief comments Wednesday afternoon. "We expect there to be a vibrant free-agent market for his services."

In an offseason in which few starting-caliber offensive linemen will be available, Neal figures to be one of the premium free agents. The Patriots still are interested in retaining his services, but not before Neal at least tests the free-agent market first.

Since joining the Patriots in 2001, Neal has played in 78 games, starting 73 of them. Neal is 33 years old, which is old for a running back, but not a guard. He is one of football's toughest players, having been a national champion amateur wrestler that once defeated WWE champion, and UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar.

But one of Neal's most impressive feats came last season, when he played with broken ribs that few knew about. It was the latest testament to his toughness and one of the reasons some thought he would retire this offseason. Some thought, at Neal's age, he was finished played.

But Cornrich confirmed Neal is not done, and he intends not only to play next season but to do it at a high level.

Mike Reiss adds to the Stephen Neal decision, and what he might be looking for.

Titans starting guard Eugene Amano reportedly just signed an extension averaging about $5 million per season, so that provides a ballpark figure that Neal might be able to command on the market, likely on a shorter term deal. The presence of former Patriots offensive coaches in Denver (Josh McDaniels) and Kansas City (Charlie Weis) could also create a solid market for him.

After his last foray into free agency in 2006, Neal, a native of San Diego, told reporters that he would have considered a team closer to home. After reportedly visiting with the Vikings, Bills and Dolphins, he ended up re-signing in New England.

Karen Guregian spoke with Seattle WR Deion Branch to gauge his interest in coming back to play for the Patriots.

Tom Brady's former go-to guy gave an enthusiastic thumb’s up. Branch said he harbors no ill feelings toward Patriots coach Bill Belichick or the organization despite the contract dispute that led to his departure four years ago.

"(Going back to the Patriots) would be interesting to see. You know what, I talk to guys all the time. I never wanted to leave, nor did coach Belichick and his staff and the organization want me to leave, either," Branch said last night. "We just couldn’t get the contractual part down. We just couldn’t come to an agreement. And that stuff happens.

"I still love coach Belichick, and if the opportunity presents itself to come back, I would love to be there."

"Playing with [Tom Brady] is the best," Branch said. "He’s going to bring the best out of you because he’s a great competitor. . . .

"He is by far the best quarterback to play the game of football."