Rams Cornerback E.J. Gaines Proving to Be One of 2014 NFL Draft's Early Steals

Dan Hope@Dan_HopeContributor IIINovember 14, 2014

Nov 9, 2014; Glendale, AZ, USA; St. Louis Rams cornerback E.J. Gaines (33) against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Rams 31-14. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It’s rare for a sixth-round draft pick like E.J. Gaines of the St. Louis Rams to become an immediate starter for his team as an outside cornerback.

Gaines has not only taken on that responsibility by starting each of St. Louis’ first nine games this season, he’s also, despite being passed over 187 times in the draft this May, established himself as the best cornerback in the 2014 rookie class.

No NFL team saw this coming, not even the Rams, for they wouldn't have waited until the sixth round to draft him. But it’s been clear since the season began why St. Louis, despite drafting five players ahead of Gaines, ended up putting its faith in him to play a crucial role on its defense.

It looks as though with Gaines, a player who has now achieved excellence playing football in the state of Missouri at every level, the Rams hit on a pick that will end up being one of the biggest steals of the 2014 draft.

Why Gaines Fell in the Draft

Take a look at Gaines’ credentials as a collegiate player out of Missouri, and it’s easy to question why no team drafted him in Rounds 1 through 5.

A 2013 all-SEC selection, Gaines was a three-year starter for the Tigers, having previously at Fort Osage High School in Independence, Missouri, who accumulated 40 passes defensed over the course of his collegiate career.

Despite the solid coverage he provided for years against SEC and Big 12 competition, he did not receive an invitation to the 2014 Senior Bowl (he did participate in the East-West Shrine Game), and there were more than 25 cornerbacks selected ahead of him in May’s draft.

As his collegiate coach, Gary Pinkel, noted earlier this week, one reason for that might have been Gaines’ limited size, as he measured in at only 5’10” and 190 pounds at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine:

David Morrison @DavidCMorrison

Pinkel on E.J. Gaines: "A lot of people, since he didn't hit the height mark, didn't evaluate him. That was a mistake on their part."

NFL teams evaluate prospects based on traits more than production, and Gaines—with those measurables and a reported 4.48-second 40-yard dash at Missouri’s pro day, according to Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch—didn't have any traits to make himself stand out in the draft process.

In St. Louis, Both a Playmaker and Consistent in Coverage

Given the typical results of a Day 3 draft pick starting right off the bat at cornerback, one would have expected Gaines to have some growing pains and at least occasionally get burned for a big play. Instead, Gaines has displayed the polish and playmaking ability of someone who’s been a professional at the position for years.

Among the 72 cornerbacks who played at least 50 percent of their teams’ coverage snaps this year, Gaines ranks 14th in the NFL, having allowed just 1.01 yards per coverage snap this season, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

That number ranks second among the 12 rookies who have played 25 percent of their teams’ coverage snaps, while he also leads all the rookies in coverage snaps per reception.

Overall, PFF ranks Gaines, with an overall rating of 6.6, as one of the top 10 cornerbacks who has played at least 50 percent of their teams’ snaps this year.

Also tied for 11th in the NFL with 10 passes defensed through nine starts, Gaines has put his skill for making plays on the ball on display. This was especially in his most recent game Sunday, against the Arizona Cardinals, when he recorded three pass breakups, two of which broke up potential touchdown passes in the end zone.

The first of those deflections came in the second quarter, when Gaines established inside position on fellow rookie John Brown, then leaped up to knock what would have been a 25-yard touchdown pass out of Brown’s hands on the right side of the end zone.

This play was a textbook example of off-man coverage, as Gaines picked up Brown downfield from an 8-yard cushion (screenshot one), positioned himself between Brown and the ball (screenshot two), then timed his jump effectively so that he could jar the ball out as Brown started coming down with it (screenshots three and four).

NFL Game Rewind

NFL Game Rewind

NFL Game Rewind

NFL Game Rewind

In the third quarter, Gaines saved his team six points again when he made another leaping pass deflection on a throw to the right side of the end zone, this time intended for Cardinals tight end Rob Housler.

This play demonstrates Gaines’ ability in zone coverage to quickly discern where the ball is going and cover ground to make a play on it.

The rookie started the play lined up as if he was going to blitz off the edge (screenshot one) before dropping back (screenshot two), ultimately picking up Cardinals running back Andre Ellington on a delayed wheel route (screenshots three and four), before recognizing the throw was going to Housler and quickly reacting to accelerate to the end zone and make a play on the pass (screenshot five).

NFL Game Rewind

NFL Game Rewind

NFL Game Rewind

NFL Game Rewind

NFL Game Rewind

Gaines demonstrates his instinctiveness, like he did on that play, on a regular basis, especially when he is in zone coverage. One of his veteran-like qualities is his ability to quickly diagnose where the ball is going mid-play, and he has the change-of-direction quickness and enough speed to close on the ball when it is in his region of the field.

That said, Gaines has been just as impressive going man-to-man with receivers, something he has done both outside and in the slot.

He has not been getting burned on deep passing plays. According to PFF, Gaines has not allowed any receptions this season that have gone for longer than 23 yards. While he has broken up multiple touchdowns, he’s only allowed one: a 12-yard touchdown on a slant by Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Terrance Williams in Week 3.

(Upon further review: Gaines was also beat by San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree on a 32-yard touchdown in Week 6. That reception was charged to Rams safety T.J. McDonald by PFF).

One of Gaines’ most impressive performances this season came in Week 5 against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Tasked with shadowing Jeremy Maclin, who ranks eighth in the NFL with 92 receiving yards per game this season, Gaines limited the big-play threat to just four receptions and 52 yards on nine targets, according to PFF (On his only other target of the game, Maclin burned Lamarcus Joyner—a rookie defensive back selected in the second round of this year’s draft—for a 24-yard touchdown.)

When Eagles quarterback Nick Foles tried to go after Gaines with a 45-yard deep ball intended for Maclin, the first-year cornerback made him pay by coming up with his first career interception.

This was another example of Gaines winning from off-man coverage, as he gave Maclin a seven-yard cushion (screenshot one) but then ran stride-for-stride with the receiver down the field, establishing himself inside his opponent (screenshot two) and winning the battle for the ball at the catch point (screenshot three).

NFL Game Rewind

NFL Game Rewind

NFL Game Rewind

Gaines’ game still has room for improvement in a number of areas, but the rookie has proven to be far more than just a stopgap at the top of St. Louis’ cornerback depth chart. Already demonstrating the ability to cover even some of the top receivers in the NFL at all levels of the field—and make big plays against them—Gaines looks to have a long, successful career ahead of him.

How Gaines Stacks Up Against Recent History

Gaines is already one of just four cornerbacks since 2007 to start at least nine games in his rookie season despite not being selected within the first five rounds of the NFL draft.

Assuming he starts at least 11 games, he’ll be the first rookie cornerback since Chris Cash in 2002 to not be drafted in the first five rounds and start more than 10 games, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.

Since 2007, when Pro Football Focus began grading players, there have been 14 cornerbacks from outside the top 100 draft picks to start eight games or more in their rookie seasons.

Should Gaines finish on the positive end of PFF’s grading spectrum, he’d be just the fifth of those cornerbacks to do so.

He'd join 2007 fourth-round pick Fred Bennett, 2008 fourth-round pick Dwight Lowery, 2010 fourth-round pick Alterraun Verner and 2011 fifth-round pick Richard Sherman (Washington Redskins fourth-round pick Bashaud Breeland, who has eight starts this year and a minus-1.5 overall rating from PFF, could also end up joining that group.)

Even most early-round picks at cornerback struggle in their rookie seasons, so for Gaines to be playing as solidly and consistently as he is, it looks impressive by any measure.

What Gaines Still Needs to Prove

Although Gaines has exceeded all expectations to this point, there are still some areas in which he needs to improve to build upon his early success and become a Pro Bowl-type player.

Because Gaines is typically lining up seven to 10 yards off his opposing receivers and rarely going into press coverage, he is susceptible to getting beat by hitch and comeback routes in front of him.

An example of that came in Sunday’s loss to the Cardinals. After lining up eight yards off the line of scrimmage (screenshot one), Gaines had his eyes looking at the quarterback when John Brown broke to the sideline on a 13-yard route (screenshot two), leaving him too late to react and make a play as Brown caught the pass (screenshot three).

NFL Game Rewind

NFL Game Rewind

NFL Game Rewind

Another area in which Gaines has not been great is tackling. Although Gaines ranks fifth on the Rams with 39 total tackles—including three for loss—he’s not a very physical tackler, and he has already missed seven tackles this year, according to PFF.

Overall, however, the biggest thing that Gaines needs to prove is simply that he can continue to play at the level at which he has performed so far.

Gaines been a significant upgrade at a position that has been a problem for the Rams, while he’s also contributed on special teams, playing 70 snaps there already, according to FootballOutsiders.com.

He’ll continue to be a starting cornerback in the NFL, despite his low draft position, so long as he continues to make big plays and not let them up.

All screenshots taken from NFL Game Rewind and illustrated by the author.

Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.


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