If we go back and review the St. Louis Rams' 2014 draft, we’ll find that they likely landed two of the biggest steals in that entire draft.
First-round DT Aaron Donald is the one that we all knew would be good, but sixth-round CB E.J. Gaines was the one that seemed destined for irrelevance considering the Rams traded up for CB Lamarcus Joyner in the second round.
The Mizzou standout was thrust onto the scene when the now franchise tagged CB Trumaine Johnson suffered a knee injury during the 2014 preseason. Gaines was instantly relevant and didn’t look back. In a strange turn of events, the third-year cornerback is looking to bounce back in 2016 after missing all of 2015 with a Lisfranc injury to earn the starting job opposite the franchise player he once held off for playing time.
During that 2014 season, the Rams were forced to rely on Gaines and others while Johnson nursed his knee injury. Gaines not only filled the void but he performed well.
Gaines started all 15 games he appeared in and posted an impressive two interceptions and team high 10 passes defensed (Janoris Jenkins, the Rams' top corner of the last four years, had two and five that year, respectively) with one fumble recovery. He struggled as a tackler in a few games, but overall he was a player that kept the action in front of him. He earned PFF’s secret superstar for the Rams 2014 season, ranking in the 70th percentile for CBs as a rookie and was their nod for the Rams' top CB that season.
Even as the Rams were trying to retain Jenkins this past offseason, they felt comfortable enough in Gaines’ rehab from a tough foot injury and 2014 campaign to let Jenkins walk at his asking price.
Coty Sensabaugh was brought in quickly after Jenkins' departure in free agency to add depth and compete for the starting job opposite Johnson. Though Fisher says Sensabaugh will compete on the outside, that spot is Gaines’ to lose. Marcus Roberson will provide outside depth as well in case Gaines is slowed by his return from injury. Sensabaugh makes borderline starter money, but he’s yet to have a season as solid as Gaines’ rookie year.
If healthy, I see Gaines winning that job pretty easily.
Gaines should step right in and start to build off of his rookie season. His injury happened just shy of a year ago and by all accounts has been a smooth recovery process. He effectively will replace Jenkins and should help the secondary become more disciplined. He won’t ever be mentioned in the same breath as Jenkins in terms of playmaking ability, but make no mistake -- touchdown returns aren’t the only form of ball skills, and Gaines possesses them.
As soon as the news that Jenkins would not be returning broke, many fans and some experts pivoted to Gaines and how he’s the better CB anyway. He may very well be the more consistent of the two, but there will undoubtedly be some rust to shake off and techniques to improve upon. But at his best, Gaines will again provide plus outside coverage.
It should be noted that Gaines considers himself at 100% healthy right now, but the Rams have eased him along to this point in preparation for training camp.
Chances of Making Final Roster (10/10)
The only way Gaines does not make the final roster is if he suffers a setback with his foot.
He was the Rams most consistent CB in 2014 and as long as he can build off that he should form a nice outside pairing with Johnson that can continue to allow the defensive line to create havoc. He was the forgotten CB after the Rams' 2014 NFL Draft and has almost managed to be forgotten about again (outside the dedicated Rams fan base).
This season, Gaines should again open up many eyes and remind us one more time how much of a steal he was.