By Sean Meusch
Every year I seem to latch onto a defensive back prospect that I fall in love with because of the two things I value most in a DB, instincts and awareness, that is also being horribly underrated by the draft community as a whole due to him not having sexy box score statistics or measurements. Last year it was Terry Hawthorne out of Illinois, however this year, EJ Gaines makes Hawthorne look pedestrian. There have been times I’ve literally found myself irate as people point to Justin Gilbert’s interception totals or the size/speed combo of the Florida athletes playing corner and act as though they’re head and shoulder above Gaines. Yes, this is – no questions about it – my favorite cornerback in the class.
Just fractionally under 5’10″ and tipping the scales at 195 pounds, Gaines isn’t going to be mistaken for Patrick Peterson, but with long arms, an ability to play bigger than he is, and a frame that can take more weight, he’s plenty big enough to man the boundary at the next level against much bigger receivers; he’s built nearly identical to Chiefs corner Brandon Flowers when he came out of Virginia Tech.
While he’s built like Flowers, Gaines times and plays faster. He should clock in the mid-4.4′s on the Combine track in Indianapolis and unlike some other corners, he definitely plays that fast. When looking at long speed, typically, what we’re looking for is, “Is this guy going to get beaten deep?” In the case of Gaines, he just doesn’t give up big plays PERIOD.
Gaines’ accelerate may be the closest thing to a weakness I see in his game, and even that he seems to understand not only this shortcoming of his own but also how to hedge to minimize its impact on his performance. This is something that will be a bit more noticeable on the track – he’ll likely have a good-not-great 10-yard split averaging out to a quality 40-yard dash – than on the field; this is largely due to his ability to compensate with superior instincts and recognition skills to where it hardly makes a difference. I’d be a bit more hesitant lining him up over lightning quick slot receivers like Randall Cobb or Tavon Austin without allowing him either a cushion or the opportunity to press at the line, but otherwise he should be fine against a good many pro receivers.
As I eluded to earlier, there will be some who want to knock Gaines for not being as flashy as a Justin Gilbert with eye-popping interceptions, but in judging the quality of this specific type of turnover, I’ll take the guy who shows the awareness to read a route/throw and make the play on the ball than the guy who makes the freakish athletic one-handed grab. While he is an aggressive corner, EJ shows the football IQ to not abandon his assignment to go for the glory play if he doesn’t have the cover over the top. This is not to suggest that his interception tally is bare (he actually pulled down 4 in 2013 alone; 5 counting the bowl game), but much like the one he grabbed against Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl, they tend to be more of a case of right place, right time.
Arguably the best awareness of any corner or defensive back in this class; I’m talking off the charts awareness, not just of what’s going on with the QB and his assignment but all over the field. And this is why I feel it’s inappropriate to not call Gaines a playmaker because he has a knack for making plays he wasn’t even involved in to start. His game against Murray State shows this quite well, wherein Gaines snagged two of his four INT’s for the season – the first a diving grab after the tight end slipped in the flat and the second leaving his man after a tipped pass to and driving back upfield for the catch. EJ has a fantastic feel for the game and really outstanding football IQ, it seems like things have already slowed down for him – granted, this is before he moves on to the much fast professional level, but reaching this point while playing in the SEC is definitely a perk.
Unlike some corners, Gaines plays off his man (more often than not) due to a lack of great neutral-to-1st-gear acceleration not for lack of flexibility in his hips. Quite the contrary, in fact, his hips are smooth and slick and he’s very fluid in and out of his breaks. He mirrors well going both side-by-side and trailing receivers, and shows a lot of poise riding the hip of his assignment without drawing incidental contact from missed steps. This is one of the main reasons he consistently doesn’t give up big plays as he’s an incredibly difficult cover-corner to shake.
Gaines is more smooth and agile than he is a POW, explosive athlete. He’s akin to the Nick Hardwick or Tom Nalen of cornerbacks – not the biggest or the strongest or the fastest, but definitely one of the smartest and knowledgeable in how to utilize the athletic gifts he does have very well. He’s not an elite athlete – merely a very good one – but he’s the epitome of why you don’t need to be one to be extremely successful at the corner back position.
If there’s an area I’m going to nitpick on it’s that his tackling technique needs some cleaning up – though that’s the case with a good majority of collegiate defenders, to be fair. Most notably, he needs to do a better job keeping his head up on tackles as that can form a habit that has nasty potential to either draw penalties or get himself injured at the next level. He’s an efficient tackler, but more grab and drag than stick and drive. Part of that comes from the fact that he typically draws assignments that he’s giving up 30-ish pounds to on average. The key really is consistency; he knows what he needs to do, he just needs to continue to get the reps and push clean technique. As a run defender, he shows good discipline and does a surprisingly good job taking on blocks with the correct shoulder and doing what he can to shed them to make a play on the runner. Rarely used as a blitzer and his lack of great get-off doesn’t suggest he’d be outstanding at it (though certainly could be used), but he’s such a boon in coverage, sending him on a blitz is wasteful anyway.
The words “shutdown corner” get tossed around a bit too liberally, especially on the internet. But if there is such an animal in this draft class, Gaines is the best candidate. He’s adept at playing the right or left side – thus able to be assigned to a specific receiver and follow him wherever he lines up on the field. He’s proficient in man and zone, and often switched from off-man to pressing at the line, doing so well, aided by his stocky build and long arms. Absolutely excels in man-coverage and managed to more than hold his own against two prospective 1st-round receivers, Mike Evans and Jordan Matthews, not giving up a big play to either. He’s got strong active hands, but need to show a bit more discipline with them as he can tend to get a bit handsy with the larger targets – something that gets called far more in the flag-sensitive NFL than the FBS.
CHANGE OF DIRECTION/FEET
Gaines shows very good lateral agility and nice clean footwork. He shows the kind of technique you want to see out of a 3-year starter: No wasted steps transitioning out of his backpedal with nice, quick, surgical feet. His change of direction ability isn’t elite, but watching how smoothly and aggressively he moves, it feels like a disservice to label them simply “good.”
Grades can always be explained here
|Multiple Pro Bowl Player, Top 10
|| 8.5 – 9.0
|Highly Productive Starter, 1st Round
|| 8.0 – 8.4
|Very Good Starter, Early 2nd Round
|| 7.8 – 7.9
|Reliable Starter, 2nd Round
|| 7.5 – 7.7
|Potential Starter in Year 2, 3rd Round
|| 7.0 – 7.4
|Backup/Spot Starter, 4th Round
|| 6.5 – 6.9
|Productive Backup, 5th Round
|| 6.0 – 6.4
|Very Good Backup/STs, 6th Round
|| 5.5 – 5.9
|Quality Backup/Good STs, 7th Round
|| 5.0 – 5.4
|Backup/STs/Project Player, 7th Round
|| 4.5 – 4.9
|Priority Free Agent w/ Limitations
|| 4.0 – 4.4
|| < 4.0
|Change of Direction/Feet
Gaines is hitting his stride and getting hot at the right time for a prospect to mount a surge up the board. He’ll begin with the East West Shrine Game on January 18th and look to build from there. As things sit, if teams can bring themselves to look past his less-than-ideal height and at his body of work and the receivers that he has shutdown in his career, he’s firmly a Top 50 pick with an outside shot of sneaking into the bottom of the 1st round. Gaines grades out to a 7.92, or a top 40 pick.