Michael Thomas has led all Dolphins players with 50 special teams tackles since 2014, including 22 in 2016 — the second-most in the league.
But the Dolphins elected to let him leave in free agency, losing not only their best kick coverage guy, but also their special teams captain, to the New York Giants.
They weren't about to let the same happen with Walt Aikens, who is now in position to fill the role Thomas served, both on and off the field. Aikens signed a two-year, $2.7 million contract in free agency to remain a Dolphin.
Aikens has also been around since 2014, but has gotten a fraction of the attention of his ex-teammate (Thomas' decision to kneel during the national anthem has much to do with that).
So let's get to know Aikens, who had was recently named a national spokesman for the Police Athletic/Activities League.
NFL season: Fifth.
Round drafted: Fourth.
Hometown: Charlotte, North Carolina.
How did you get involved in the Police Athletic/Activities League?
"I grew up a PAL kid in Charlotte, North Carolina. I started off playing football for PAL and ultimately finished up as late as I could in the system we had in North Carolina. Right now, Jeff [Hood of PAL] had called me a few months back over the break and asked me if I wanted to become a part of the PAL system again. I felt like it was the best way to give back, me going back to these local communities and showing these kids that no matter where you are or where you’re from, you can always make it and there’s a positive way out of every situation. I just love the fact that I’m able to give back. Jeff put me in a position where I can impact these kids’ lives and really be a positive influence in their life and that’s my ultimate goal.”
What’s your best memory of PAL growing up?
“Just being out there with the kids. You build true friendships. You build real relationships and you go out there and play football. Then, there’s no stretch. You just go out there and play and everything is real fun. That whole team environment, that’s what builds on and helps you get through your everyday life, not only on the field, but off the field. I still have relationships with kids I grew up with. They hit me up every now and then [and say], ‘Remember when we played PAL ball?’ This and that. So, it’s not just one, specific memory, it’s just the whole camaraderie of being in a group at that young age.”
We haven’t had a chance to chat with you since you decided to re-sign here. What was you thinking and how did that all come together?
“This is home. Any other team was just a second option at that point. Me and my agent sat down, made some decisions and this was the best place for me.”
Do you hope that your role will continue to grow here?
“Yes, definitely. Definitely. That was a big part of my staying too, just talking with [Adam] Gase and Coach ‘O’ – Tony Oden – and just trying to find a home. I’m willing to do whatever, going out there day in and day out, just grinding and everything will fall into place.”
What do you think of the new kickoff rule and how does that change what you do?
“New kickoff rules are pretty decent. We’ll see how it plays out more in preseason; but as far as right now, it’s made to protect players and make it a safer play, because there’s a lot that goes on in a five, six second play. People are running down with a long head start. Now they’re shortening that up, trying to make the blocks easier or safer. We’ll just have to see how that works out in preseason.”
What do you consider yourself? Do you think you’re like a Matthew Slater type or are you special teams DB as a football player?
"I feel like if you put me out there on the field, I can play wherever. I don’t try to limit myself with a title, especially as a special teams player, because I’m a DB before anything. My ultimate goal is to get out on the field and ball out and show them what I’ve really got. It’s been a long journey these past four, going on five (years) now. I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help this team win.”
You have mentioned you wanted to show the coaches what you’ve really got. How big of a gap do you think there is between what you’ve shown and what you can give this team?
“It’s a lot. There’s a lot I haven’t shown you yet just with the limited snaps I did get. I’ve gained more confidence in myself. I feel like I kind of fell off confidence-wise the past couple years, but I’m coming back in refocused, refreshed, full of confidence, full of energy and just ready to ball out.”
What made you lose confidence?
"I would say just not being on the field as much as I would want to and just being labeled as a special teams player for so long. I kind of got down on myself; but I know I can ball. I know I can go out there and play. Just about getting on the field now. When the opportunity comes, show out.”