After waiting more than six weeks for his lingering hamstring issue to heal, the Patriots were forced to place free safety Eugene Wilson on injured reserve on Tuesday. The move is yet another blow to the team's banged up secondary, a unit that has been forced into musical chair starters for the bulk of the season thanks to various injuries to just about every defensive back on the roster.
Wilson, a fourth-year starter who has been a fixture in the New England secondary dating back to the second week of his rookie season, played in just four games this season. He started each of the Patriots' first three contests before hurting the hamstring against the Broncos and missing two weeks. He then returned on Oct. 22 to face the Bills in Buffalo, but re-injured his right hamstring and has not played since.
Wilson finishes the season with 22 tackles, a quarterback hit and two passes defensed. Prior to this year the former second-round pick had missed just one regular season game in his previous three NFL campaigns.
To help fill the void left in Wilson's absence, something the Patriots have been working through on a piece-meal basis for nearly two months, New England signed veteran free agent defensive back Ray Mickens. The 33-year-old is an 11-year NFL veteran who played for the Jets from 1996-04 and spent last season with Romeo Crennel's Browns.
The 5-8, 180-pounder has played in 142 career games with 36 starts. He has 398 tackles, six sacks, 11 interceptions, 92 passes defensed, four forced fumbles, four fumble recovers and 30 special teams tackles. Mickens played for Patriots coach and then Jets assistant Bill Belichick in New York for three seasons from 1997-1999.
While the veteran had been out of football for the first part of 2006, he played in all 16 games a year ago in Cleveland and finished third on the team with 13 passes defensed. He had re-signed with the Jets this past summer, but was released by New York in the final wave of roster cuts on Sept. 2.
Mickens joins a New England secondary that has been a fluid unit for most of 2006. Strong safety Rodney Harrison has missed the last four contests with a broken right scapula, although there's hope he'll be able to return to action later this month. Second-year starting cornerback Ellis Hobbs missed a week with a broken wrist and continues to wear protective equipment on the injury. Chad Scott, Artrell Hawkins and Asante Samuel have all also missed time due to injury.
With all the changes, the Patriots have used six different starting lineups in the secondary in 12 games. The team has also had to use wide receiver Troy Brown as its primary nickel back in a pair of contests. But the loss of Wilson for the year may not be quite as damaging as it might seem, as the team as been working without the starter for most of the season anyway. With Wilson and Harrison, the opening day safety starters, out of action, the team has used Hawkins and second-year prospect James Sanders in the starting roles in recent weeks. Baring further injury that lineup will likely continue moving forward until the point if/when Harrison is able to return to action. And the addition of Mickens to the mix only puts another experienced, veteran defensive back at Belichick's disposal, potentially allowing the team to avoid using Brown in a defensive role moving forward.