Sam Aiken has been a key special teams contributor for the Patriots since joining the team in 2008. It was Aiken who made former longtime special teams ace Larry Izzo expendable in New England. Aiken was noted for his superior special teams play while in Buffalo. When the Bills let him get away, the Patriots – having seen enough of him in person – aggressively pursued adding him to their roster.
Aiken was almost immediately made special teams captain. He took over the key spot of up back on punt units in camp, relegating Izzo to the sideline during Aiken's first season when both players were on the team. In 2009, Aiken assumed the mantle of team captain for Izzo who moved on to the Jets.
Aiken was rarely called upon to be a receiver either in Buffalo or in New England. But injuries to starters made depth a key issue for New England and the special teams ace stepped up to the plate on offense. He eventually took over Jabar Gaffney's role as the third target for Tom Brady, behind Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Though Gaffney was the No. 3 in 2008, Aiken's role increased through the season, eventually landing him the role in 2009 when Gaffney signed with the Denver broncos.
What Aiken did on special teams was, well, it was special. He always knew where the ball was when he was on coverage, rarely – if ever – missing his assigned lane. Often he had to fight through multiple blocks to get to the ball carrier, yet he still managed to lead the team in special teams tackles three times during the year.
Aiken isn't going to scare anyone as a receiver. Though he managed a couple of highlight plays during his tenure in New England, more often he is known for not coming down with passes the Patriots needed. Aiken has decent hands, but nothing spectacular. He is a solid blocker, meaning he can setup opportunities downfield for plays designed to have him clear an area… Aiken also isn't the speedster he was when he was younger. He possesses average speed, often failing to shake the coverage.
Yet despite the negatives a veteran with Aiken's age brings with him to a new team, he also offers something invaluable for most teams – selfless veteran leadership. Aiken has that. He leads by example.
Aiken was replaced by defensive players on this year's roster. The Patriots chose to keep guys like Kyle Arrington, and James Sanders over a receiver like Aiken. On offense, second year player Brandon Tate takes over as the team's No 3 (or 4) option competing neck-and-neck with Julian Edelman for Tom Brady's attention after Randy Moss and Wes Welker.
What I like about him going to Cleveland is he can immediately upgrade their special teams coverage while offering stability at the WR position. He knows what it takes to make a tackle on special teams and isn't afraid to stick his head into the middle of the action. On offense he'll block his arse off to get a runner extra yards downfield. Aiken is the kind of guy a young, mistake-prone team needs. He can teach the youngsters the right way to do things.