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How does cornerback E.J. Gaines fit with the Buffalo Bills?

The newest addition to the secondary is coming off a terrible 2016 season

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Now that the dust has settled on trade-a-palooza 2017, the Buffalo Bills have some new additions to their roster. While we already took a look at wide receiver Jordan Matthews, today we’ll turn our attention to the man replacing Ronald Darby, cornerback E.J. Gaines. Our friends over at Turf Show Times provided a quick-hitting look at the fourth-year defensive back yesterday. Gaines should be right at home in head coach Sean McDermott’s zone-coverage scheme.

The biggest takeaway from TST’s examination of Gaines was in the second bullet-point. Author 3k wrote, “[Gaines] is limited in his usage to zone packages and man coverage underneath.”

Under former head coach Rex Ryan, this would have been a tremendous problem; however, with the cover-3 scheme preferred by McDermott that he and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier will implement, what limits Gaines in a league-wide sense will help him to fit well with Buffalo’s particular scheme.

“What [Gaines] can do, he does well,” noted 3k, so if he’s a strong zone corner, then he will have the chance to fight for playing time right away in Buffalo.

General Manager Brandon Beane spoke about Gaines at his press conference Friday, and he did not guarantee that the new member of the secondary would receive playing time, but he did say that Gaines would be in the mix to earn it.

“He’ll compete with the other corners. He’s not guaranteed a spot, but he’ll come in and we’ll see where it goes,” Beane said.

Gaines will compete with Kevon Seymour and Shareece Wright for time on the outside, with Seymour and Leonard Johnson expected to continue battling for time in the slot.

What are the chances that Gaines wins a starting job? Well, it depends on whether we see a version of the player that resembles the 2014 model or one that looks more like the 2016 edition. As a rookie in 2014, Gaines was outstanding; he was voted to the Pro Football Writer’s Association all-rookie team. According to Pro Football Focus, Gaines allowed 1.03 yards per coverage snap in 2014, good for 14th-lowest in the league that year. He also allowed one reception per 9.3 coverage snaps and 1 touchdown on the season. As for 2016, it was basically the direct opposite. His 1.77 yards per coverage snap was fifth-highest in the league, and the 9 touchdowns he allowed were more than any other NFL defensive back. He also allowed a reception every 6.8 coverage snaps while allowing 100 more receiving yards on 13 fewer targets than he had in 2014. Overall, PFF rated him 105th out of 110 qualifying defensive backs, which is, well, terrible. What happened between 2014 and 2016?

Gaines suffered a Lisfranc injury in 2015, causing him to miss the entire season. Last year was his first year back, and he obviously wasn’t quite ready yet. A foot injury is always difficult to manage, and could cause some trouble upon the player’s return—not that we have any experience with that as Bills fans or anything—but that steep a drop-off is still concerning. If Gaines can play more like he did in 2014, the Bills actually upgraded their secondary. Ronald Darby was a man-cover corner who used his speed to make up for a lack of size at the position; Gaines is a physical player who makes up for a lack of speed with awareness and excellent positioning, which works well in a zone look. Each player had a great rookie season followed by a sub-par (in Darby’s case) or terrible (in Gaines’s case) second one.

Another interesting note that probably has nothing to do with the trade, but it’s still worth noting: there were three fights in Rams’ practice on 8/9, and Gaines was involved in two of them. His nose was still bleeding from his first altercation when he went in for round two, according to Lindsay Thiry of the LA Times.

Gaines is a tough guy who fits Buffalo’s cover-three scheme much better than he fits new Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’s defense. His physicality and awareness are gains (thank you, thank you), while his lack of top-end speed and short arms/stature will limit him against receivers with plus speed or size. I am unsure that he will beat out Kevon Seymour for the starting gig—Sean McDermott has heaped praise on the second-year player thus far in camp—but it’s possible that he bumps Seymour inside in substitution packages due to Kevon’s versatility. At worst, the team is rolling the dice on a player coming back from an injury to prove that he is able to play as well as he did prior to that injury.

In essence, the team is doing exactly what it would have been doing anyway, just with a different name playing the role of bounce-back candidate. If Gaines can show that his foot injury is behind him, then he has the chance to excel in Buffalo’s zone scheme.