FOXBORO, Mass. — The final two spots on the Patriots wide receivers depth chart are very much up for grabs, and Kamar Aiken figures to be one of the final guys in the mix.
Aiken signed with the Patriots late in the 2012 season after failed stints with the Buffalo Bills and Chicago Bears to begin his career. He played in just one game for the Patriots, getting on the field for just three snaps and not seeing a single target from Tom Brady in a Week 16 win over the Jaguars.
At first glance, that appeared to be the end of Aiken’s tenure in New England. He was released two days later, and expected never to be heard from again. But the Patriots re-signed the overlooked receiver soon thereafter and stashed him on the bench throughout the playoffs. He was thought to be nothing more than a scout-team player with incredible size (6-foot-2, 215 pounds), a big body who could mimic the traits of Andre Johnson and Torrey Smith for the Patriots’ defense. But as the Patriots retooled their wide receiving corps during the offseason, they realized that they might have something special in Aiken.
With the Patriots’ apparent emphasis on bigger, more athletic receivers going forward, Aiken looks, physically at least, like a perfect fit for their offense. But it’s more than just his size that likely intrigues Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels. Sure, Aiken has the physical attributes typically accustomed of a quality Z receiver, which the Patriots are still searching for, but, even entering OTAs, he wasn’t thought of as a legitimate contender to make the roster. That thinking has changed radically in the 11 days since training camp opened.
Aiken, 24, has seemed to pick up the Patriots’ offensive system quicker than most of the other receivers on the roster — save for Danny Amendola. He’s the third-most experienced receiver on the team, behind Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater, but two months late in the season and a few more in the playoffs doesn’t really constitute much “experience.” Yet, Aiken continues to show off his advanced understanding of the scheme and unexpectedly exceptional abilities as a receiver.
“It’s a good feeling,” Aiken said of his play so far. “I just try to capitalize on all the opportunities I do get and try to minimize me making mistakes and taking full advantage to be honest.”
Aside from Brady’s almost flawless connection with Amendola, Aiken has consistently been in the mix as the No. 2 receiver on any given day. He’s run smooth routes, shown a good ability to get off press coverage at the line and has been one of the most reliable pass catchers in camp.
Even with the standout camp performance, though, nothing is guaranteed for Aiken. The Patriots invested second- and fourth-round picks in Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce earlier this year, and undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins has made a firm case of his own for a roster spot. So, Aiken’s path to the 53-man roster will be a difficult one — but not impossible.
Aiken knows the chance is there for the taking, which is why he’s so focused on staying healthy — something he hasn’t been able to do in the past.
“This is probably the first camp I’ve been through and I’m day-by-day, feeling good, taking care of my body [and] doing the little things,” Aiken said. “I’m just trying to get to the preseason game 100 percent and go from there. That would be great for me, if I can go into the preseason game 100 percent.”
As the Patriots head to Philadelphia for three days of joint practices ahead of Friday’s preseason opener against the Eagles, Aiken is as healthy as can be and in perfect position to further establish his place on the roster.
On Saturday, Aiken was in the mix on the first-team offense during the Patriots’ full-team scrimmage, along with Amendola, Edelman and Thompkins. Dobson and Boyce are clearly very much in the mix for first-team reps as well, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them get some over the course of the four-game preseason schedule. But Aiken’s early lead is a promising sign.
Aiken is still something of a dark horse to make the Patriots’ final 53, especially with all the young talent around him. The battle for the final two receiver spots will likely come down to some blend of Edelman, Thompkins, Michael Jenkins and Aiken. So, the road might seem steep right now, but Aiken’s combination of talent and smarts might make him just too valuable for the Patriots to let go of.
He’ll have his first real chance to prove it on Friday. We’ll see if he’s a man of his word and can actually capitalize.
Photo via Twitter/@SteveB7FSG