Patriots' Stephen Neal placed on IR

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots placed starting right guard Stephen Neal on season-ending injured reserve on Thursday, which could signal the end of Neal's career.

The move was not a major surprise as Neal has missed the last three games with a shoulder injury.

Neal, 34, had considered retirement in the offseason but returned to the team on a two-year contract. He is scheduled to earn $3 million next season if he decides to return, and the Patriots decide they want him back.

Neal has been with the Patriots since 2001 and his career progression was one of coach Bill Belichick's favorites to recap. Neal did not play college football at Cal State-Bakersfield, but was a top wrestler. He worked his way into the Patriots' starting lineup in 2004.

Neal started the first eight games of the season at right guard this season. Five-year veteran Dan Connolly has taken his place for the past three games and projects as the top option at right guard the rest of the season.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.