FOXBOROUGH -- The Patriots' banged-up defensive backfield was delivered another knockout punch yesterday when safety Eugene Wilson was placed on injured reserve, ending his season.
The Patriots had held out hope that Wilson, an opening-day starter who had missed eight games with a hamstring injury, might return for the final stretch of the season. Instead, the team signed 33-year-old cornerback Ray Mickens to take his spot on the roster.
The move should have a trickle-down effect on the receiving corps, which figures to rely more on Troy Brown in the coming weeks. Brown had been filling in as a nickel cornerback in recent weeks, but Mickens's presence should allow him to focus more on offense.
Wilson, a second-round draft choice in 2003, injured his hamstring Sept. 24 against the Broncos, missed the next two games, then reinjured himself Oct. 22 at Buffalo while playing on the punt-return unit. Nine-year veteran Artrell Hawkins has started in Wilson's place.
The Patriots have also been without their other opening-day starter at safety, Rodney Harrison, for the last four games. Second-year player James Sanders has started the last three games in place of Harrison, who still hopes to return this season from a broken scapula .
There are now nine defensive backs on the roster: cornerbacks Asante Samuel, Ellis Hobbs, Chad Scott, and Mickens, and safeties Harrison, Hawkins, Sanders, Rashad Baker, and rookie Willie Andrews. Scott and Andrews have the flexibility to play both cornerback and safety.
The secondary has been helped by Brown, who saw his most extended defensive action Nov. 19 at Green Bay and Nov. 26 vs. Chicago.
But not to be overlooked is how the signing of Mickens figures to limit Brown's time at cornerback, as the 5-foot-8-inch, 180-pound Mickens is considered primarily a nickel back, which is the spot Brown has been playing.
In Sunday's 28-21 victory over the Lions, however, Brown was on the field for all but two of the Patriots' 63 offensive snaps (including a fourth-quarter 2-point conversion), a sign of what could be an increasing role on that side of the ball. The Patriots likely couldn't expect him to handle such a load in the future if they needed him on defense.
Brown is fourth on the team with 32 catches, and now appears to be the team's No. 2 receiving option next to Reche Caldwell (46 catches). Brown and Caldwell are backed up by Jabar Gaffney and Doug Gabriel, while rookie Chad Jackson injured his groin last week and missed Sunday's game.
This marks the third straight year the Patriots have had significant injuries in their secondary. The team placed backup safeties and special teams performers Tebucky Jones and Mel Mitchell on injured reserve in the preseason, then lost cornerback Randall Gay for the year on Sept. 27. Samuel (knee), Scott (groin), and Hobbs (wrist) have all missed one game apiece as the Patriots have shuffled their personnel on a weekly basis.
Mickens has appeared in 142 regular-season games with the Jets (1996-2004) and Browns (2005). From 1997-99, he played for Bill Belichick -- then the Jets' defensive coordinator -- and last year he was in a similar system under former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, now the Browns' head coach. He rejoined the Jets in May but was released Sept. 2 before the season.
Wilson's move to safety was unexpected in 2003, coming after the Patriots parted ways with veteran Lawyer Milloy shortly before that season.
A cornerback in college at Illinois, Wilson made the switch to safety seamlessly and had been a mainstay entering this season, playing in 51 regular-season games with 49 starts. Belichick once called Wilson's switch from corner to safety "about as smooth as you could hope for."
Mike Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.