Next up in PFF’s Secret Superstar series is the St. Louis Rams, a team looking to bounce back from a last-place finish in the competitive NFC West. Among the players we’ve highlighted in past seasons are Fred Robbins, William Hayes, and last season’s selection, Zac Stacy. This time another rookie makes the cut in cornerback E.J. Gaines.
In 2013, the Rams didn’t have a single defensive back end the year with a positive overall grade and unsurprisingly finished the season with a losing record. The team responded to this by investing heavily in the secondary during the 2014 draft and used their sixth-round pick on Gaines after his first-team All-SEC senior season at Missouri.
Gaines saw the field almost immediately, playing 52 of 68 possible defensive snaps in the team’s preseason opener against the Saints, compiling a +2.1 overall grade in the process. Among his notable plays was a second quarter pass breakup and a pair of stops. Perhaps the Rams saw all they needed to see as Gaines logged just 53 total snaps in the remaining exhibition games and opened the season starting at the left corner spot.
After a fairly quiet regular season debut against Minnesota during which he surrendered three catches for 25 yards, Gaines Graded above +1.0 overall in three out of his next four games and managed a +5.8 grade through Week 7 – only 10 corners started the season better. Of note was a Week 5 performance at Philadelphia that earned him a +3.0 in coverage after he allowed a meager 26.7 QB rating on 10 targets. In that game, he got his hands on a pair of passes, first making an impressive break on the ball at 5:35 of the first quarter before coming down with an interception in the second quarter at 10:02, taking advantage of a poorly located throw by Nick Foles.
As might be expected from a rookie corner, Gaines also had his share of struggles during the season, including some rough games against the Chiefs, Broncos, and Chargers. He accrued seven of his 14 missed tackles in those three games and allowed a reception on more than 80% of passes that went his way. But take a look at his plays against Arizona in Week 10 (+2.6 overall) breaking up a pair of passes in the end zone (2Q, 5:06 and 3Q, 5:17). Over the entire season, Gaines delivered more of that type of play than he did negative ones – 7:55 of the first quarter in Week 6 and 3Q, 1:02 in Week 16 are two more examples.
Statistically he was outstanding and perhaps the only negative you can find is his tackling: he missed 14 attempts and ranked 60th at the position with a 6.0 Tackling Efficiency Rating (attempts per miss). But he still managed a Top-5 Run Stop Percentage and considering his 5-foot-10, sub-200-pound frame, it’s not too surprising that he had some tackling issues. In coverage, Gaines only surrendered one touchdown all season and the longest gain against him went for 23 yards, the third-lowest figure among corners. His average gain allowed was also very low (9.6 yards) and was bested by just six players. And although he played more than 50% of his snaps at the outside LCB spot, he also fared well in the slot, allowing just 0.95 yards per snap in coverage there (13th out of 61 qualifying CBs).
Further, not only did Gaines contribute on defense, but he also performed well on special teams, specifically as a vice on punt returns. His +6.0 grade on special teams was second only to Johnny Hekker on the team and only one player in the entire NFL (KC’s Kelcie McCray) had a better grade on punt coverage. Take a look at his play during the team’s Week 15 matchup against the Cardinals at 4:21 of the third quarter; Gaines does an excellent job slowing down gunner Jaron Brown.
For a sixth round pick to take a starting job from Week 1 and finish with an overall grade in the 70th percentile among corners is impressive. That’s why E.J Gaines is our Secret Superstar for the Rams and we’re eager to see how he fares in his second season.
Follow Thomas on Twitter: @Maneyt