+Really good against the run
+Excellent instincts against the run
+Good instincts against the pass
+Above average ball skills
+Adequate long speed
-Not very quick for his size
-Mediocre in man coverage
-Below average laterally
I love this cornerback class, but Missouri’s E.J. Gaines is probably the best later round sleeper in this group. A likely safety in the NFL, his instincts and toughness against the run are second to one (Kyle Fuller, who got 14.5 TFLs his sophomore year, take a moment to appreciate that) among corners in this draft class, and I believe he will become an average NFL starting strong safety, which would be pretty good value in the 4th round.
Gaines has below average measurables. He’s pretty short at 5’10, for a corner or safety, he has mediocre bulk at 190lbs, but he runs a 4.44 40, above average even for his size. It should be noted, however, that he didn’t run the 40 during the combine due to injury, and that 4.44 40, from NFLDraftScout.com, doesn’t show up often on film. He’s a bit of an odd player with respect to his speed, as most shorter players tend to have more short area quickness than long speed, while Gaines is the opposite, showing adequate long speed but below average short area quickness and change of direction skills. In any case, I don’t think he would have run a 4.44 at the NFL combine. He also had very short arms at the combine, which is usually a red flag for me, but they have never interfered with his tackling at the collegiate level, and if he makes the position change I expect him to make, will not be a huge hindrance to his NFL career.
Gaines is mediocre in man coverage. He has above average instincts in man coverage and can stay stride for stride with most receivers, but his quickness is questionable and his size really hurts him in this respect. In general, the easiest way to figure out if an undersized corner has an NFL future at corner is to watch him try to breakup a pass on a route that features the receiver being between the corner and the quarterback, like a hitch route. Theoretically, no matter how close to the receiver the corner is, his size will make the hitch route impossible to defend. No one can jump the route every time, and even if you are glued to the receiver’s back, if you’re undersized like Gaines, the receiver probably has longer arms than you and he’s closer to the football. It’s impossible to touch the football. The only way to breakup this pass is with impeccable timing, slashing your arms through the arms of the receiver and doing whatever possible to separate the hands, while making sure that you wrap up, so in the event that the receiver makes the catch, he won’t get any yards after the catch. Jason Verrett is about as good as it gets. Ronde Barber was outstanding, and Alterraun Verner is very good as well. E.J. Gaines cannot breakup this pass, so he really struggles to breakup passes on shorter routes. Beyond that, he is solid in man coverage. He gets pretty good positioning in all scenarios, he is very physical in man coverage, and he does a very good job of using the sideline to his advantage and finding the football. He can read the eyes of receivers and knows when the ball is in the air, and he does a pretty good job of not committing pass interference. His below average quickness really hurts him against quicker receivers, and, as a result, despite his size, he probably can’t play nickelback at the NFL level.
Gaines is solid in zone coverage. His instincts are excellent and he has pretty good ball skills. He’s consistently in good position and he can read the eyes of the opposing quarterback. He does an excellent job of communicating with his teammates and, combined with his excellent on field awareness, he would likely excel in a scheme that uses a fair amount of pattern read coverage. He has a bit of a habit of betraying the coverage by almost always giving his man a large cushion in cover 3, and given all the strength he shows, he could be more consistent about jamming the release of the wide receiver in cover 2, although this is less of a problem if he does move to safety. His lateral agility is below average, which hurts him in zone coverage, but he usually makes up for it with his excellent positioning and on field awareness. On the downside, as a tackler, he is more reliable than powerful, so, although his success rate as a tackler is tremendous, he can’t really jar the ball loose to prevent a completion.
Gaines is outstanding against the run. Although he missed two games this season, he still made 75 tackles and 4 TFLs, and the previous year he had 74 tackles and 7 TFLs, which are outstanding numbers for a corner. His tackling is just perfect. Although he is at a size disadvantage against everyone, he still never misses tackles and rarely yields yards after contact because his technique is simply impeccable. He is very strong on film and he consistently finds ways to bring down ball carriers even when his length disadvantage makes wrapping up basically impossible. What makes me most hopeful about his future as a safety, even beyond the tackling and instincts, is his block shedding. He gets really good leverage when he is engaged in a block, getting very low and doing an outstanding job of protecting his size while maintaining gap integrity. He can catch blockers leaning on their hands and his fundamentals when engaged in a block are very sound. Combine that with his excellent instincts against the run, and Gaines should be a very good run defender as a safety in the NFL.
If there is one problem with Gaines future as a safety, it’s that his type is a dime-a-dozen. He’s a strong safety without question, too small to be of much use in a deep zone but instinctive enough to be effective in underneath zones and strong enough to be excellent against the run, while also being capable in man coverage against a running back if you blitz a line backer. If you are reading this and your team is looking for a safety, that’s probably not what you need. Most teams are looking for a free safety with enough size (height, not bulk, although that’s a bonus) and athleticism so that they are not completely worthless as the centerfielder in cover 3/cover 1 in the event that Jimmy Graham or someone of that ilk runs a seam route, while also not being so raw and undisciplined that they blow coverages and allow long gains. HaHa Clinton-Dix is the perfect example of this; good size (the only thing that separates him from Calvin Pryor, who is a good player but is 5’11), enough athleticism and ball skills that he won’t be completely embarrassed if Jimmy Graham runs a seam route in his direction. Although Gaines is among the best strong safeties in this draft class, his kind just isn’t in high demand for the time being, and for good reason.
Ultimately, I like Gaines. I think his ability against the run should translate into a solid starting NFL strong safety, and his instincts against the pass are good enough that he won’t be a liability in zone coverage or in man coverage against running backs. He should be a solid player, although not immediately, as he will need some time to learn the strong safety position.
NFL Comparison: Marcus Gilchrist, except Gaines is a little more instinctive against but less athletic. Gilchrist switched from corner to safety in the NFL as well, except the reason was slightly different. Gilchrist was a linebacker in a corner’s body, very mistake prone in coverage but outstanding against the run, but physical limitations didn’t cause him to play safety. In the case of Gaines, his lack of size and iffy quickness is what will keep him from playing corner. Like Gilchrist, Gaines will not immediately become a starting safety, but he will turn into one as he learns the nuances of the position. They are very similar against the run, but Gaines projects to be slightly less mistake prone, but slightly less disruptive, in coverage, after he makes the transition.
Grade: 85 (worthy of a mid second round pick)
Projection: 69 (will be an early fourth, possibly late third round pick)