FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — It was impossible to miss Sam Aiken throughout the New England Patriots' summer training camp. He caught everything thrown in his direction, ran good routes and always seemed to do the right things to make a play when he was called upon to step in with the first-team offense.
Aiken, the Patriots' special teams captain who moonlights as a wide receiver, has stepped up at key moments in the regular season, too. Most notably, the seventh-year pro ripped off a 54-yard catch and run to score the first touchdown of his career in Week 7 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And Monday night against the New Orleans Saints, Aiken stepped up with a game-high seven receptions and led the Patriots with 90 yards.
Naturally, while the Patriots have spent much of the season trying to find a consistent third receiver — the Joey Galloway and Greg Lewis experiments both failed, and Julian Edelman and Brandon Tate have been hampered by injuries — it's worth wondering why Aiken hasn't always gotten that opportunity.
Well, as head coach Bill Belichick explained Wednesday, Aiken is just too valuable on special teams. While chicks dig receptions, coaches dig valuable special teamers.
"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 at 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 just do what is best for the team. But that's something we have to take into consideration with him, and it's a good problem to have. I think it's something that we've got to keep an eye on."
Aiken has 16 receptions for 229 yards and one touchdown this season — all of which are career highs — and he's got seven special-teams tackles (four solo) and one forced fumble.
His balancing act in 2009 won't ever show up on the stat sheet, though. As the special teams captain, he is responsible for organizing and leading meetings to watch game film and discuss each week's game plan, and he's got to do that around the offensive and defensive meetings, which have designated times.
Running back Kevin Faulk, who plays a role on special teams, said Aiken's job is "real tough" because he is dealing with so many different players and a half-dozen units — kickoff, kickoff return, punt, punt return, field goal and field-goal rush — that are comprised of 66 different positions, according to Belichick. That's also not including the hands team and other specialized units that focus on onside kicks and the like.
"He has a lot more people individually that are counting on him because there are so many different groups on special teams," said Faulk, who has been an offensive co-captain in the past. "The way Sam works off the football field is amazing. The way he works out in the weight room, the way he conditions, you knew it was just a matter of time of him getting his opportunity and proving that he's worthy of being in that position."
Aside from his special teams responsibilities, Aiken has obviously put in his work on offense, and it's not any easier for him on that side of the ball. His versatility allows him to play both inside and outside as a receiver, which means he's learning two types of positions, along with the different plays and formations.
"From that standpoint, he has good versatility, but that means a lot of extra work and a lot of extra learning," Belichick said. "That's something that he's had to work on. Anybody would because it's a lot to learn, but he's done a good job of it."
Aiken has forced Belichick's hand a little bit by standing out offensively. Of course, playing next to Randy Moss and Wes Welker, Aiken will get plenty of looks by default, and the Patriots don't exactly need a superstar to play the third receiver. Donte Stallworth was about as good as it gets for the record-setting offense in 2007, hauling in 46 catches for 697 yards and three touchdowns. Last season, Jabar Gaffney was the Patriots' third wideout and recorded 38 receptions for 468 yards and two touchdowns. If Aiken was strictly a third wideout throughout 2009, his production wouldn't be far off Gaffney's.
Aiken's teammates already respect his leadership ability on special teams, and they're overly excited he's getting his time in the spotlight on offense. He's just a guy everyone in the locker room roots for.
"When he gets the ball in his hands, he really runs with it, so we're going to need that," quarterback Tom Brady said. "Our third receiver position on offense is very important, and Sam is really stepping up and doing a great job in there. It was probably his best game of his career."
Welker added, "Sam has been a great player in really making sure that he's making plays out there and doing the job that he needs to do, and his role is going to be expanded."
Belichick, who has a special affinity in his heart for special teams, has certainly appreciated Aiken's contributions to the team since he arrived in New England in 2008.
"Sam works hard," Belichick said. "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 ready to play."
As is the most popular saying in the New England locker room, Aiken seemed to feel as though he's just doing his job.
"When [the opportunity] came, I didn't want to let the team down," Aiken said. "I just wanted to keep working hard and hope it pays off."
On cue, Aiken was quick to deflect any praise for his offensive performance. When the chance comes, he'll keep a steady head and continue doing what got him here in the first place.