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Third option in motion

Receivers Aiken, Stanback prepared for bigger roles

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / January 9, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH - Sam Aiken has survived seven years in the NFL because of his outstanding play on special teams, skills that earned him a two-year contract extension from the Patriots in October.

But on the roster and in his heart, Aiken is a wide receiver.

“You get in the league and you’ll do whatever it takes to stick around,’’ he said. “But I always believed in myself in terms of being able to catch the ball and make plays.’’

The Bills never saw it that way. Aiken played five seasons in Buffalo and caught 19 passes, one over his last two seasons. The majority of his work was done on the kickoff and punt teams in Buffalo, but the Patriots have been far more open-minded as to his skills.

Aiken has started seven games at receiver this season and caught 20 passes for 326 yards and two touchdowns. When Wes Welker was lost for the season with a left knee injury, Aiken’s importance to the offense became magnified as the Patriots prepare for tomorrow’s playoff game against the Ravens.

The same is true for Isaiah Stanback, a third-year receiver who joined the Patriots in September after being released by the Cowboys. After several weeks on the practice squad, he was activated Nov. 14 and has started two games, catching three passes for 22 yards. Now, perhaps, he will play a role in helping to replace Welker.

“It’s unfortunate what happened with Wes. He’s a big part of this team and this organization, but guys need to step up,’’ Stanback said. “It’s just a matter of who it is. Guys like myself and Sam, we have to be ready.’’

For Tom Brady, this is where he hopes the backups come to play. He has been working with Julian Edelman, Aiken, and Stanback in practice and has faith in their talent.

“We have quite a bit of depth,’’ Brady said. “I think the way that Coach [Bill] Belichick builds the roster, he’s really interested in depth throughout the entire 53. If a guy goes down, another guy has got to step in and fill the void. We’ve got good quarterbacks here. We have good running backs, certainly, receivers [and] a great group of offensive linemen who have all played. Pretty much everybody on offense this year has played.

“Obviously, you never want to lose a guy who has 123 catches, but hopefully a lot of the work that we put in over the course of the year can kind of lessen the blow.’’

One sign of Aiken’s newfound fame came earlier this week when somebody created a fictitious Twitter account using his name. It has since been deleted.

“Just what I need,’’ said Aiken, knowing Belichick would not take well to one of his players micro-blogging from inside the protective shell of Gillette Stadium. “But it’s not me.’’

Aiken keeps a much lower profile. He was voted special teams captain by his teammates in only his second year with the Patriots after being signed as an unrestricted free agent. His first career touchdown came Oct. 25 against Tampa Bay in London when he caught a 54-yard pass from Brady.

That earned him a start the following game and he caught two more passes.

“I feel like I’m a much better receiver now than I was. Just being around guys like Wes and Randy [Moss] has helped me,’’ Aiken said. “But this team also gave me the opportunity. I don’t know what’s going to happen [tomorrow] but I feel like I’m ready to step in and help the offense.’’

Stanback, like Edelman, was a quarterback in college. But after throwing for 3,868 yards and 22 touchdowns at the University of Washington, he was drafted in the fourth round by the Cowboys in 2007 and converted into a receiver.

He caught two passes for 24 yards in his first two seasons with Dallas and returned 13 kickoffs for 296 yards. The Patriots signed Stanback two days after he was waived.

“I didn’t really have any expectations. I just wanted to come in and work and learn. I’m doing a lot of that,’’ he said. “I have definitely grown. I’m still kind of frustrated at times because I didn’t get to have that bonding through camp and all the little things you learn. I may not know all that stuff.’’

Stanback would not speculate as to whether his duties might increase tomorrow.

“You’d have to talk to the head guy,’’ he said. “My job is to come in here prepared and whatever decision they make, I have to live with. I have to be ready if he calls me. That how it works, somebody goes down and somebody else has to step in. You don’t have a choice.’’

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