The new-look front office of the 2017 Buffalo Bills starring Sean McDermott took a look at the existing roster of defensive backs and “noped” their way through the entire list (though they did re-sign Colt Anderson). This questionable strategy led to a completely new back end on defense. The closest thing to a “splash signing” after the DB exodus was rookie corner Tre’Davious White. To the surprise of everyone not name “Sean McDermott,” the secondary was the unquestioned strength of the team.
In comes E.J. Gaines in what was widely considered a form of consolation prize attached to the Sammy Watkins trade. Playing in only 25 of a possible 48 games with the Rams (and missing the entire 2015 season due to injury), the Gaines acquisition felt like a whole lot of finger crossing. Despite missing more time with injury, Gaines played so well this entry into the series isn’t even going to worry about whether he’s any good. Instead, here’s some plays that show you why.
Gaines seems to be reading Trevor Siemian the whole way here. Gaines reads the play as a deep pass. As a result, he doesn’t bite on the quick fake to the outside (he’s not even looking to be fair), and maintains his speed. Siemian throws to the other side of the field which is the right call. If you’ve ever heard an announcer say a corner ran the receiver’s route for them, this is what they mean.
Ignore the flag at the end for the ticky-tack penalty on Gaines. And for the moment let’s also forget that the receiver comes down with this one. Bennie Fowler (16) has three inches, 27 pounds and the knowledge of when he’s going to turn as a short list of advantages. It’d be hard to blame Gaines for being cleanly beat. This turns into a jump ball because of Gaines’ ability to react and turn so quickly. This isn’t a perfect play by Gaines, but shows off his athleticism nicely.
Here he is guarding Cody Latimer (14) who has an even larger height advantage over Gaines at 6’3”. Gaines’ position is better here. Despite the height difference, it would take a much better pass than what Siemian unloads to get it done.
This play is essentially distilled process trusting. Pardon all the stoppages but there’s plenty of fun things here. Gaines gets a decent jam in (first stop) to disrupt the receiver. He sees a receiver coming open into his zone and trusts that Micah Hyde will pick up his initial coverage (second stop). Hyde times it up perfectly and dislodges the ball with a big hit (third stop). Hyde gives the ball a little celebratory kick for our final stop in the play, which should have been a 5-yard penalty for delay of game.
Gaines’ sole interception of the season comes as a result of many of the facets of his game seen above. He passes off his initial assignment as their routes diverge and successfully locates his second assignment. Gaines smothers the play and is in great position to break up even a perfectly thrown pass. Siemian is under pressure though and the throw is less than ideal. Gaines sees the poor trajectory and breaks off to get the pick.
E.J. Gaines has plenty of data to support how well he played as well. Gaines had 48 solo tackles, 11 assists and 9 defended passes. While only one interception could be seen as disappointing, three forced fumbles is not. All of this was accomplished in only 11 games as well, making him all the more appealing for anyone more concerned with rate stats than volume ones.
The 11 games “thing” though shouldn’t be overlooked though. Missing five games in a single season is a major hit to availability. Making matters worse, in his 11 appearances Gaines only hit the expected snap count total of 100% five times. In other words, he left the field for at least part of the game in six of his eleven games. Of these six, four had significant time missed (19% or more of defensive snaps missed). All told, Gaines was only on the field 59% of the time for the defense which is shockingly low for a corner.
In none of the plays above, or in general, do you see E.J. Gaines displaying any uncanny athleticism or ability. He’s solid to very good in many areas no doubt, but a major component of his success is his near perfect fit into The Process. The game above was in week three with a completely renovated secondary and new coaching staff. It’s remarkable the level of confidence Gaines has in the zone assignments and the ability of his teammates to execute.
Despite his seamless fit in Buffalo, injury concerns are abundant with Gaines. If the past is an indicator, Gaines has only been on the field for about 2⁄3 of possible playing time. When healthy, he can carry his weight with ease in what’s emerged as an incredible secondary with the Bills. It’s likely that retaining Gaines is no less of a gamble than finding a replacement.