|Don’t look now, but Sam Aiken is becoming a significant piece of the Patriots offense - and not just an ace on special teams. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)|
Aiken being well-received in new role
FOXBOROUGH - When he was voted Patriots special teams captain at the beginning of the season, Sam Aiken took it as a sign of respect from his peers.
But Aiken has evolved into something more than special teams maven. He has been thrust into the role of third receiver, a position that had been in a state of flux after veteran Joey Galloway was released Oct. 20. Rookie Julian Edelman was slowed by a forearm injury against Tennessee, and fellow North Carolina alum Brandon Tate, who was activated five days after Galloway’s release, was placed on injured reserve (knee) Nov. 14.
Aiken took the added responsibility as an entirely different sign: a sign of trust.
“It comes down to trust, you know?’’ said Aiken, who is in his second year with the Patriots after signing as an unrestricted free agent March 3, 2008. “If Brady, if Tom can trust me to get open and be at a certain depth, it comes down to trust.’’
Considering that he led Patriot receivers with seven receptions for 90 yards against the Saints, both career highs, Aiken clearly earned that trust.
Brady targeted Aiken 10 times, as the Saints bracketed primary options Randy Moss and Wes Welker in the 38-17 loss.
“You talk about when guys try to really cover Randy and Wes, and what are you going to do? Who are you going to get the ball to?’’ Brady said. “I think Sam is emerging as that player that, when you’re really not focused on him, he’s able to make some plays.’’
Aiken demonstrated that playmaking ability in the college ranks at North Carolina, winding up with 146 receptions for 2,205 yards and 15 touchdowns. He earned All-Atlantic Coast Conference second-team honors and was the Tar Heels’ offensive MVP as a senior.
“The way Sam works off the football field is amazing,’’ marveled running back Kevin Faulk. “The way he works out in the weight room, the way he conditions, you knew it was a matter of time for him to get his opportunity and prove that he can compete at the receiver position.’’
In five seasons with the Bills, Aiken made 19 catches for 250 yards, with 148 coming on 11 catches in his second season in Buffalo, 2004. Last season, his first in Foxborough, Aiken made eight receptions for 101 yards. He nearly matched that total with his performance against the Saints, which was highlighted by a 33-yard catch on third and 12 in the second quarter.
“We took some other shots with him and there were some opportunities there,’’ Brady said. “That Tampa game [in London Oct. 25] where he made that catch-and-run - that was a great play by him.’’
It was an eventful one at that. Aiken scored the first touchdown of his career on foreign soil, a 54-yard pass from Brady in the Patriots’ 35-7 romp over the Buccaneers at Wembley Stadium.
“When I got into the end zone, I really didn’t know what to do with the ball,’’ said Aiken. “So I just paused.’’
Aiken then did what any red-blooded American football player would do. “I spiked the ball,’’ he said.
When the Patriots visit Miami Sunday afternoon, Aiken would like nothing more than to do the same on American soil.
“Oh yeah, definitely,’’ he said. “I would like to get one at home, even though I had to be out of the country to get my first one.’’
Now that he has emerged as a viable third option at receiver, Aiken’s role on special teams will likely have to be scaled back, according to coach Bill Belichick.
“He had a big role on special teams and we were kind of reluctant to expand that role too much, too fast,’’ Belichick said. “We would have a hard time replacing him in the kicking game. That’s a little bit of an issue for us now. The more he’s playing receiver, then how much of a role does he have in the kicking game?
“We want to try to balance that and in the end do what’s best for the team.
“He made some plays for us in preseason, had a big play in the Tampa game. When he’s had his opportunity, he’s stepped up, caught the ball, and also run with it well after the catch.’’
Said Brady, “When he gets the ball in his hands, he really runs with it, so we’re going to need that. Our third receiver position on offense is very important, and Sam is really stepping up and doing a great job in there.’’
Described by Belichick as “a big, physical player,’’ Aiken, at 6 feet 2 inches, 215 pounds, gives the Patriots a different look at the third receiver.
“He’s definitely different than Wes and different than Randy,’’ Belichick said. “He has a different playing style, different set of skills. I think they all complement each other pretty well, and he’s a physical player, which we see in the kicking game, but that shows up on offense, too.
“Sam works hard. He doesn’t say much, he’s a quiet guy, but he works hard, he’s always prepared, and he’s tough. He’s obviously earned everybody’s respect around here, and when he’s had an opportunity to play, he’s stepped in and done a good job for us.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.