The Patriots knew they were going to have to address their depth on the offensive line this offseason, and one of their questions was answered Wednesday when right guard Stephen Neal retired.
Neal had been a very good player when healthy, but he missed 28 regular-season games from 2006-10 and was placed on injured reserve last season after he underwent shoulder surgery.
The Patriots managed just fine without Neal at the end of 2010 because left guard Logan Mankins returned when Neal got hurt, and Dan Connolly played wonderfully at both guard positions throughout the year. Also, when Connolly went down with a concussion, Ryan Wendell played well in his place.
Right now, if Mankins' franchise tag holds up and he reports to the Patriots on time, he'd be the starting left guard, and Connolly would start on the right side. But there doesn't seem to be any real chance that Mankins will play another down in New England, which will ultimately force Connolly to start on the left side.
From there, Wendell would be the temporary starter at right guard, which is all well and good, but the Patriots will still likely address that position either in free agency or through the draft. While Wendell and center Dan Koppen played some good football alongside each other for two-plus games, the concern would be that they're both undersized, and defenses could attack that area of New England's line.
Other than Mankins, left tackle Matt Light's situation is also unclear because the Patriots haven't worked out a contract with the free agent. If Light moves on, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer will have to switch sides, opening yet another spot on the right side of the line.
While there is still a lot of uncertainty along the Patriots' offensive line, they learned one thing on Wednesday — they've got to replace Neal.