E.J. Gaines was the top cornerback for the Missouri Tigers aggressive, pressure defense. While the defensive front was relentless in its attack, players like Gaines dropped back and mitigated the damage that could be done after the catch as well as waiting patiently for an opponent to make a mistake and cause a turnover. Gaines’ used his senior season to play his best and was part of how Missouri was able to go from bottom of the pack to the runner up for the SEC.
Gaines is a zone corner that has some experience playing man in the slot. His physical skillset is solid but unspectacular in part because he does not always play to where it shines like it should. He does a good job playing the scheme, is able to support the run, and then punishes opponents when they make mistakes near his zone. Gaines warrants a day three pick but he does have the potential to become a starter with more physical development and eliminating some bad habits.
Vitals & Build
Gaines measured 5’10” 190lbs at the scouting combine with 30 3/8” arms. He has a relatively average build and the way he plays makes him look all the more average. His strength is enough, but could certainly improve and make his life easier. His speed, quickness and feet seem to be enough, but better habits during plays would allow him to take full advantage of what he has. There is potential there as Gaines is relatively thin and can improve as well as employ better habits on the field to play faster.
Gaines is a solid but unspectacular tackler for the most part. There are some nice, powerful tackles at times, but he is usually a wrap up, drag down tackler that is not likely to make big hits, but not likely to miss plays either.
By virtue of the scheme, Gaines can end up being the last line of defense at times, so he is just looking to get the guy down any way possible; dragging them down, holding them for teammates, using the sideline when possible. He has had some nice plays where he was able to attack up the field and put a solid hit on an opponent. More strength would allow for more of these and make some of the run of the mill tackles easier, but as long as he keeps getting the job done, no one will complain.
Gaines will come downhill and help in the run, but his path to the play can be problematic. When he has a lane, he will go straight to the ball carrier and can slow them down if not simply tackle them himself. In situations where he is faced with blockers, he will sometimes go right at them, but too often tries to figure out a way to go around and avoid the contact. The result is that occasionally, he takes himself out of the play and by not taking on the block, that blocker can hit someone else and two defenders are out of the play.
Again, if he can get stronger, it will only benefit him and make it easier, but he needs to be more aggressive with blockers, take them on and hold his ground or learn to shed.
Usually if Gaines is playing man, he has been shifted inside to the slot. They seem to put their top corner inside to do this, leaving corners on the outside in zone with help over the top in the middle of the field. Gaines has shown some ability in how he can help in man coverage but there are some issues that could be improved that would help him be more effective in man but also in how he plays zone.
First, he tends to be too high in his stance and when the ball is snapped. He has a less than enthusiastic starting point, which does not generally cause problems for him, but just reduces the amount of options he has. Essentially, if he was in a better stance to start with and came out with better positioning, staying low and having good foot movement, he could be more easily able to react and jump on the football when he sees it or make plays.
His backpedal is too high as well, which makes it a little more difficult for him to flip his hips and stay on his line effectively. Gaines can stay with receivers in the slot, but more specialized slot receivers who are quicker could use this against him to get open and make plays. He is working harder than he should need to if he were more detail oriented to begin the play.
In coverage, Gaines can do a nice job of staying with the receiver while not being all over the receiver possibly drawing a penalty. This could cause some to criticize that maybe he is not physical enough, but that is a question of what the defense wants him to do within the scheme. Gaines can run with receivers, mirrors pretty well and he is able to make the most of his length and reach out to knock the ball away from the opponent, bending around the opponent to knock the ball down.
This is where Gaines is far more often found. The Missouri defense loves to send a lot of pressure at the opposition and keep their defensive backs back, keeping the plays in front of them and tackling the pass. As a result, Gaines is often playing near the sideline that can resemble quarters coverage. Missouri seems to be perfectly happy with the idea of forcing the opponent to keep snapping the ball and pressuring them into mistakes.
Again, the way Gaines starts plays looks lackadaisical. Often times, Gaines is simply walking upright to his spot and not really in a position to maximize his movement skills. He gives the opponent the ability to dictate the action and there are times when Gaines does not realize that had he started the play better, he could have undercut a pass or made a play when he was a step short.
In terms of spacing and understanding how far he can go in his zone and using his body to help him out, Gaines does a nice job. He is comfortable knowing where he is, where he needs to be and what he is responsible for in all situations. The result is that Gaines is able to bait opposing quarterbacks into throws and punish them for it. He does a nice job of moving and reading the quarterback’s eyes, prowling around at times and moves in a way where he can go unnoticed underneath.
For the most part, Gaines is operating in a deep zone and coming forward to tackle the pass, so it can look like he is simply not making plays and giving up passes, the defense is designed to give up underneath plays and string out possessions. While Gaines can do a better job with some little things that would make him look and play faster, he does good work in the nuances of the scheme and though he is not a powerful tackler usually, he gets the job done and avoids giving up bigger plays.
Gaines has shown he can make plays on the football and has pretty good hands, able to not only catch the ball away from his body with his hands, but has shown a pretty good catch radius as well. There have been some missed opportunities but they tend to come on some really difficult catches. And by nature of playing underneath, he can be a threat to take a pass and go all the way.
Gaines does have some experience as a punt returner, though it does not seem terribly likely he will do it at the next level. He should be able to help on various coverage units.
Gaines is a zone corner and that is certainly his best fit. That is what he was trained to play at Missouri and while he has experience in man, he is far better in what he brings to the table for zone. He has a good grasp on how to play it and what he can do there to help a team.
Gaines has shown he can play man and there is potential to work with, but he needs to get more attuned to small details and get the most out of himself on every play and not give up any steps by simply not being in a good position to start the play.
Gaines seems best suited to help as a depth corner at least initially, but he does appear to have the long term ability to play a starter in a zone scheme if he can keep getting better physically and just eliminate some bad habits.
Gaines’ skillset and comfort playing deep could also have him get some consideration as a free safety or, should he have a long career, could be a second act in his career.
Gaines has some similarities with D.J. Moore of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A fourth round pick by the Chicago Bears, Moore was able to contribute in their zone scheme with a knack for causing turnovers. After spending a year in Carolina with little impact, Moore, now with the Bucs could get back to being a good depth corner that can make plays for Lovie Smith, the coach who was there when he was drafted in Chicago. Gaines has a lot of these same skills and could be a nice player in the right situation.
E.J. Gaines is a smart, savvy corner who seems to really understand how to play within a zone scheme. Some changes in habits could allow him to be more effective and he has displayed some ability in man coverage. Gaines is not afraid to tackle and does not give up big plays while being able to cause turnovers. He warrants a day three pick, but is not going to be for everyone which is why he could slip as zone corners typically are not high in demand.
Some of the film used in this scouting breakdown was provided by the good folks at draftbreakdown.com