Prow­ess on spe­cial teams lim­it­ing Aikens’ roles

Orlando Sentinel - - SPORTS WEEKEND - By Omar Kelly

DAVIE — Have you ever been so good at one as­pect of a job that your em­ployer rarely lets you do any­thing else?

Have you been pi­geon­holed into one spe­cific role?

If so, then Walt your pain.

Since Aikens, a safety the Mi­ami Dol­phins se­lected in the fourthroun­d of the 2014 draft, de­vel­oped into a stand­out spe­cial teams per­former — a dom­i­nant gun­ner other NFL coaches use as the stan­dard to in­struct play­ers on how the gun­ner role is sup­posed to be played — the for­mer Lib­erty stand­out hasn’t been al­lowed to do much else dur­ing his six-year ca­reer.

Aikens plays on all four spe­cial teams units, with his play count typ­i­cally reach­ing 25 to 30 snaps per game. His im­pact is so sig­nif­i­cant that other teams typ­i­cally as­sign two play­ers to de­fend him.

“Even dur­ing game play, I hear other play­ers say, ‘Third-five right

Aikens feels there! Thirty-five right there!’ ” Aikens said, re­fer­ring to his jersey num­ber. “If I know they’re look­ing for me, I know I’ve got to re­ally show up be­cause I know they’re go­ing to be com­ing for me.”

That level of at­ten­tion is one of the rea­sons the Dol­phins typ­i­cally haven’t al­lowed Aikens to play on de­fense.

How­ever, Michael Thomas served as the nickel cor­ner­back and start­ing free safety when he was a four-core spe­cial teams player dur­ing his ten­ure with the Dol­phins.

So why can’t Aikens?

At least that’s the ques­tion Aikens, a team cap­tain, of­ten finds him­self ask­ing his coaches af­ter he lost his start­ing safety spot to Thomas, who spent the past two years with the New York Gi­ants, in 2015.

Aikens likely has lob­bied hard for him­self this week since the Dol­phins must re­place start­ing safeties Re­shad Jones and Bobby McCain af­ter both were placed on in­jured re­serve this week.

“We have our dis­cus­sions,” said Aikens, who has 18 tack­les this sea­son. “It’s all about the game plan for each week.

“I feel like the coaches will put you in the best po­si­tion, so if my name is called, I’ll do what I’ve got to do.”

When asked if he has won­dered what he must to do to get an op­por­tu­nity on de­fense, Aikens’ re­sponse was “for sure.”

He has asked that ex­act ques­tion mul­ti­ple times to the nu­mer­ous coaches he’s had dur­ing his lengthy Dol­phins ca­reer, which has out­lasted two other head coaches. But Aikens has never let the an­swer get him down or al­tered his goal of even­tu­ally earn­ing play­ing time on de­fense.

As it stands, the Dol­phins will likely use Steven Parker and cor­ner­backs Eric Rowe and Jo­mal Wiltz to re­place Jones and McCain.

When the Dol­phins have used Aikens on de­fense the past few sea­sons, it has been to de­fend tight ends — as he did ear­lier this year against the Dal­las Cow­boys the week Minkah Fitz­patrick got traded to the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers — or to shadow ath­letic quar­ter­backs.

But in 10 games as a de­fender, Aikens has played fewer than 70 snaps.

“De­fen­sively, when he gets his op­por­tu­ni­ties, I think he’s gone in there and done a good job,” Dol­phins coach Brian Flores said. “We may see him. We may see him out there.”

Aikens, who is in the fi­nal year of a two-year con­tract that pays him $1.4 mil­lion this sea­son, re­al­izes more than his pride is on the line.

What hap­pens in these fi­nal six games could dic­tate the 28-year-old’s NFL fu­ture.

“I feel like I can play de­fense at any given time,” Aikens said. “I’m ready. It’s just all about the op­por­tu­nity when my name is called, step­ping up to the plate.

“I’m pre­par­ing just like I would go into any other game, know­ing what I’ve got to do, be­ing pre­pared and fo­cused.”

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