Last year, the Patriots brought safety Artrell Hawkins and fullback Heath Evans on board after the start of the season and both players had an immediate impact. This season, it was Ray Mickens. The 34-year old cornerback was signed by New England on Dec. 4 and has been a key contributor in the Patriots nickel defense ever since.
The 11-year veteran was a third-round draft pick of the Jets in 1996. He started 36 games during his nine seasons in New York. He was also used as a nickel back when the Jets went to their sub packages. In 1998, Mickens was part of a Jets defense coordinated by Bill Belichick that helped New York get to the AFC Championship Game. After missing the 2004 season with a knee injury, Mickens spent last year playing under former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel in Cleveland.
Mickens' familiarity with Belichick's system is a big reason why he's been able to get on the field so quickly and carve a role with the Patriots.
"If I wasn't familiar with the system, it would have been tough to just step in," Mickens said. "I was familiar with this system and with all of the coaches. So it was a fairly easy transition for me to make."
The veteran worked out for the Patriots back in September. Once Eugene Wilson was lost for the season, New England needed to add some depth to its defensive backfield. Having played for Belichick in the past and already knowing his scheme, brining in Mickens made sense for the Patriots.
Even though he kept himself in good physical condition, Mickens admitted that it's not the same as preparing for the upcoming season with the camaraderie of teammates.
"The hardest thing about coming in late like I did is getting to know your teammates," Mickens said. "When you don't take part in training camp, you don't create that chemistry with the other guys. Coming here, with all the veterans they have on this team, it made it easier to fit in and get comfortable."
The 5-8, 180-pound Mickens is best suited as a nickel back because of his size and the way he plays. Playing inside, his lack of size can be masked by matching him up with smaller receivers. In those situations, Mickens' speed and quickness are a big plus. Still, he does have to cover bigger receivers on occasion as well.
"I just have to rely on positioning and technique," Mickens said about matching up with taller receivers. "As a defensive back, if you are in good position, you can always make a play on the ball no matter how tall you are."
Playing in the slot is where Mickens has excelled on the Patriots defense. He entered the Miami game and has kept his role as the Patriots primary nickel cornerback ever since. Mickens hasn't put up great numbers or probably caught the eye of the casual observer. However, his coverage skills in the slot has prevented one of the NFL's top defensive units from missing a beat, despite losing some key members in the secondary.
"I knew some people were hurt and they needed help in the secondary," Mickens said. "The Patriots gave me a call and I appreciate them trusting in my abilities and giving me an opportunity. I don't take it lightly. This could be my last stop in the NFL. That's how I'm looking at it."
Whether or not this is Mickens final stop will be determined in the offseason. For right now, he's proven to be another solid mid-season acquisition for the Patriots.
"I'm trying to make the most of this opportunity," he said. "I always knew a team could call and I'm really glad that call came from Coach Belichick. Everything we do as far as practicing and meetings, I don't take any of that stuff for granted. When you've been in this league a long time and haven't had to sit out, sometimes you take the little things for granted. I look at everything that's happened and just feel I've been blessed to get another chance to play for such a great organization."