That may seem obvious to some, but to many others, Aiken remains the forgotten – or underappreciated – man, even after a season in which he was one of the only prominent Ravens to play 16 games and caught a team-high 75 balls for 944 yards and five touchdowns.
Aiken, 27, should have to earn that role, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. He went undrafted out of Central Florida in 2011 and spent 2012 in three organizations, playing just one NFL game that year. When he was signed to the Ravens’ practice squad, he was joining his fourth NFL team.
Near the bottom of the Ravens’ wide receiver depth chart in 2014, Aiken not only made the team out of training camp, he became one of its top special teams players. His role as a receiver grew as the season went along and he caught a touchdown pass in the Ravens’ AFC divisional round playoff loss to the New England Patriots.
Last year, Aiken entered training camp with the outside expectation he’d compete for the No. 3 wide receiver role, but Perriman got hurt in the first full-squad practice of training camp and missed the entire year. Marlon Brown continued to regress and Michael Campanaro struggled to stay on the field.
Aiken, meanwhile, seized his opportunity. He had one catch or fewer in two of the Ravens’ first three games, but he took off around midseason, becoming a reliable playmaker. He had at least five catches in each of the last nine games and he had 70 or more receiving yards five times during that span. That surge coincided with Smith being sidelined with a torn Achilles.
Aiken became the first receiver in franchise history to have five catches or more in nine straight games. Only two NFL wide receivers – Atlanta’s Julio Jones and Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, two of the game’s best – enter 2016 with longer streaks.
To put Aiken’s 2015 numbers in perspective, Anquan Boldin never caught more than 65 balls or had more than 921 yards receiving in any of his three years with the Ravens. Torrey Smith’s career-high in receptions with the Ravens was 65 during the 2013 season.
That’s not to compare Aiken to the two. The Ravens were obviously much more pass-happy in 2015 and Aiken had far less competition for touches than receivers in previous seasons. But that shouldn’t diminish the breakout season Aiken had either.
Aiken doesn’t have top-end speed and he’s not especially elusive or explosive when he gets the ball in his hands. However, he’s a quality route runner, he has strong hands and he’s physical. He’s also one of the team’s most popular players in the locker room for how he quietly goes about his business while producing on the field.
Don’t misunderstand: The Ravens used a first-round pick on Perriman and they need to see what he can do. But let’s wait until he gets through a training camp healthy, not an organized team activity. Wallace needs to be involved early, so he doesn’t feel like this year will be his last season in Minnesota all over again.
It won’t be easy, but it will be on quarterback Joe Flacco and offensive coordinator Marc Trestman to get everyone involved. However they do it, Aiken deserves a prominent role.