Just over a year ago, during our annual player evaluations cornerback E.J. Gaines was given a glowing review by yours truly. Gaines was highly regarded as an excellent fit in Buffalo’s scheme. At the time it was noted that, even with injury concerns, finding a replacement for Gaines would be a gamble. The Buffalo Bills elected to try their luck and let Gaines leave. Playing in six games last year with the Cleveland Browns (notching defensive time in only four) it appears that the Bills won their bet. And now they’re betting on Gaines again. With his return, we look at his past season’s performance to see if a healthy Gaines is still worth gushing over.
E.J. Gaines wasn’t noted to have elite athletic traits and we can see here and elsewhere that this is still the case. He’s no slouch, either, as the closing speed on the tackle in this clip shows. Even average athleticism looks sharp when a player is reacting as quickly as Gaines tends to, however. Gaines is the first to the ball not because he’s the fastest, but because he was the first to see the play and do something about it.
Here’s some more of that excellent read and react from E.J. Gaines. Playing deep, Gaines is tasked with keeping an eye on a large part of the field and helping where it’s needed. As soon as Derek Carr commits to the pass, Gaines is moving into position to help out. He cuts in behind rather than attacking straight. This provides a nice safety net in case the ball is caught and also puts him in the path of the ball in case of a tip or overthrow. He’s rewarded with the ball on this play. I should also point out that E.J. Gaines did not enter this game as a starter. He came in midway after Terrance Mitchell exited with an arm injury.
There are a few things to take in here. No player is perfect and Gaines can be beat. An extended arm and sharp turn give the receiver plenty of room to make the catch. Gaines doesn’t quit on the play and uses the next turn (a cut upfield) to get in position to make the tackle.
Sometimes an incompletion is a good thing. Gaines reads Carr again and cuts right around Jordy Nelson (#82) for what would have been a tackle for a loss. Gaines doesn’t overpower Nelson or burn around the edge. He’s simply the first one to react to the play again.
E.J. Gaines had an “eye-popping for all the wrong reasons” three passes defended. That’s a third of what Lorenzo Alexander had and one quarter what Tremaine Edmunds did as a rookie. Adjusting for playing time, Gaines had one pass defended roughly every 60 plays. Alexander was one pass defended every 70 plays and Edmunds was one every 77 plays. So in truth, Gaines was quite efficient when healthy. For further reference, league leader Kyle Fuller (21 passes defended) had one every 48 plays.
Gaines uses his ability to diagnose the play pretty well in run support too. Gaines raises his hands to ward off the initial blocker. It’s not much, but just enough to not get hung up. Gaines then scoot around the edge and takes that away, driving back the play to an occupied lane.
This play looks very ho-hum on the surface. The play results in an interception, but Gaines had nothing to do with that. The play was selected because E.J. Gaines needs to know where his zone ends and when to pass off a receiver under the Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier scheme. Gaines understands where his teammates are. As a result he’s usually right where he needs to be.
To close, this clip shows Gaines at full tilt. He’s fast enough to make this footrace very competitive and is nearly there to break up the pass. Gaines also takes an angle that allows him the best chance to get there in time.
In Buffalo during the 2017 season, E.J. Gaines played at a very high level—when healthy. With a little more than two games to work from in 2018, Gaines seemed to be just as strong of a player with the Browns, but his time was limited by a knee injury and two concussions. If Gaines can put the injuries behind him this is an excellent addition to the Bills’ secondary (again).