Pats' guard personnel in focus

With Stephen Neal's retirement, and Logan Mankins' future with the team uncertain after he was assigned the franchise tag, the Patriots could have a significant changing of the guard next season.

Neal has been the team's primary starter at right guard since 2004. Mankins has been a fixture at left guard since 2005.

Six-year veteran Dan Connolly, who filled in for Neal in the second half of 2010, is the projected starter at right guard.

The Patriots have the following players on their roster who could factor into the mix at guard:

Thomas Austin -- Entered the NFL as a rookie free agent out of Clemson with the Vikings, was waived at the end of training camp, and spent 2010 with the Patriots' practice squad. Austin (6-4, 310) played both left and right guard in college.

Dan Connolly -- Emerged as a 14-game starter in 2010 and also has flexibility to play center in a pinch. Connolly (6-4, 313) has been groomed in the team's system since 2007.

Nick Kaczur -- Entering his seventh season, Kaczur is scheduled to earn a base salary of $3.4 million and the Boston Herald reported that the Patriots have asked him to take a pay cut. The Herald reported that Kaczur doesn't plan to do so, which could lead to his release. Kaczur probably fits best at tackle, but has also practiced at guard.

Logan Mankins -- The 2010 Associated Press All-Pro brought a nasty streak to the line when he returned Nov. 7 after a contract dispute. He is the team's best player up front, although he is not technically on the roster because he hasn't signed his franchise tag tender. He could elect to not sign the tender until midway through the season.

Rich Ohrnberger -- A 2009 fourth-round draft choice out of Penn State, he's spent two years in the system building up his strength and knowledge of the team's schemes. The Patriots were aggressive in drafting him, trading cornerback Ellis Hobbs for two fifth-round selections, and then using those fifth-round picks to move up and select Ohrnberger (6-2, 300).

Ryan Wendell -- Joined the team as an undrafted free agent in 2008 and was on the practice squad for most of 2008 and 2009. He stuck on the roster throughout 2010 and made his first career start Dec. 26 against the Bills. Wendell (6-2, 290) might not have ideal size, but he makes up for it with solid technique.