When Aaron Donald was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in 2014, it was practically like playing for an entirely different organization than what he’s been accustomed to recently. In some ways that is literal, the move to Los Angeles and SoFi Stadium being changes that well-suited football’s best defensive player over the last eight years, but it is also hard to believe how much different the team around him is.
In 2014, Donald played for a team that employed Austin Davis as a starting quarterback, Tre Mason as the starting running back, Jared Cook as the most-targeted receiving weapon, and a slew of defensive talents around him that includes some quality names but all of whom are now gone.
Today, Donald finds himself on the most star-laden roster in the NFL and while he should still be the name that pops up first when you think of the Rams, the celebrity corner is much more crowded with Matthew Stafford, Odell Beckham, Jr., Von Miller, Cooper Kupp, and Jalen Ramsey throwing elbows for screen time.
But it’s not one of the superstars that I’d be most afraid to push around right now: few players on the Rams are getting as much hype or air time as the 312-lb defensive tackle out of Washington who didn’t become a full-time player until the middle of his third season.
Greg Gaines is suddenly one of the most popular and well-respected football players in all of Los Angeles.
Watching Rams D for today's pod and it's very cool how much Greg Gaines (#91) has grown this year--he's on the field a *ton* and is super disruptive. Looks more agile than he did coming out of UW. pic.twitter.com/3DQyForEAH— Mina Kimes (@minakimes) January 5, 2022
A lot of people hadn't heard of #Rams nose tackle Greg Gaines until this season (Von Miller among them). Gaines enjoys showing them what he can do.https://t.co/mZQdcpvDvV— Kevin Modesti (@KevinModesti) January 8, 2022
Aaron Donald called Greg Gaines a fatass once and since then he’s had one of his best seasons with the Rams.— Cesar (@ClappedCesar) January 6, 2022
Proof that bullying works.
Von Miller said Greg Gaines "kind of looks like a substitute teacher" when you see him and talk to him lol.— Cameron DaSilva (@camdasilva) January 6, 2022
"But when he puts on pads and he's playing football, he's a whole totally different player." pic.twitter.com/Fz4Rgyyyub
A three-star prospect out of La Habra, California in 2014, Gaines wasn’t ranked nationally and he chose the University of Washington over Boise State, Iowa State, and Utah State. He may not be a huge fan of “state” schools, but Huskies head coach Chris Petersen must have been a fan of his. After redshirting as a freshman, Gaines turned in a four-year career with Washington and won the team’s Lineman of the Year Award in three straight campaigns. (The winner of the award the year before his streak was former Rams linebacker Cory Littleton.)
Perhaps the most overlooked phenomenon in the sport of football that is worth study is how people like Greg Gaines happen. Not only that, but how they happen so often. What I mean is that there are thousands of “Greg Gaines” prospects entering Division-I college football every year. Thousands. The vast majority will never come close to the NFL but Gaines made it immediately apparent at Washington that he should have had many more offers coming out of high school. Perhaps it is just a flaw in the recruiting system and the sheer numbers of prospects who must be evaluated, but Gaines started college as a future accountant (or something, a quick search couldn’t turn up a major) and he left as a legit NFL Draft prospect.
Today he is no longer a prospect. He’s the guy drawing rave reviews from Von Miller.
91 WAS FLYING pic.twitter.com/P1WBUzbrpN— PFF Bet (@PFF_Bet) December 14, 2021
Gaines is also vaguely aware that he is a Rams Twitter favorite; says his dad showed him the “who is the fastest player in the NFL and why is it Greg Gaines” tweet— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) January 6, 2022
V Miller and Aaron Donald calling Greg Gaines a superstar in the making so I had to bring up this play. Wait for Russel Wilson’s reaction https://t.co/Sp6uxzI5lZ pic.twitter.com/SxGw4EXEMH— Restore the Roar (@DETROlTLions313) January 8, 2022
Gaines measured at 6’1, 312 lbs at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine and he ran a 5.16 in the 40-yard dash. That number works fine for a player of Gaines’ stature, but perhaps more impressive was his 31” vertical (top-10 for players over 300 lbs), 30 reps on the bench (also top-10), and a 109” broad jump (17th). Gaines was projected as a late day three selection, but Les Snead couldn’t wait that long and picked him up at the end of the fourth.
That same year, the New York Jets took Quinnen Williams with the third overall selection. More on him in a moment.
In this week’s LA Rams fan survey, I asked who would be the team’s X-FACTOR on offense and defense, respectively. So far, the answers on offense are almost evenly divided between two running backs, but there is a CLEAR winner on defense: Greg Gaines.
Capturing 50-percent of the vote, getting more than four times as many votes as second-place Darious Williams, nobody is going to catch up to Gaines. Which is a phrase it seems you are going to hear a lot more often in the future: “Nobody is going to catch that man.”
Maybe he should be the X-FACTOR on offense too.
After appearing in 10 games and playing in 183 snaps on defense as a rookie, Gaines upped those numbers to 16 games and 201 snaps in 2020. The Rams traded Michael Brockers to the Detroit Lions, Morgan Fox left in free agency, and the door was open for Gaines immediately to become a more frequent part of the defensive rotation: by Week 8, he had played in a career-high number of snaps already and he was out-snapping veteran A’Shawn Robinson too.
But then Sebastian Joseph-Day, enjoying a significant breakout campaign of his own at the time, hit injured reserve following an injury in Week 7. The door would soon be even more ajar for Gaines.
After SJD had been playing in over 70-percent of the snaps and Gaines closer to 37-percent, the third-year tackle saw his playing time increase even more than expected. Even more than what SJD had been playing in: In the final nine games of the season, Sean McVay kept Greg Gaines on the field nearly 95-percent of the time.
Not even Brockers ever played in more than 70-percent of the snaps in any season when he was paired with Aaron Donald. It made sense though, Gaines was one of the best players on the team: Over his 10 starts to end the season, Gaines had 39 tackles, nine QB hits, four sacks, and three tackles for a loss. Now here is a comparison worth thinking over:
Greg Gaines, 2021: 780 snaps, 28 solo tackles, 27 assists, 13 QB hits, 4.5 sacks, 4 TFL
Quinnen Williams, 2021: 613 snaps, 36 solo tackles, 17 assists, 12 QB hits, 6 sacks, 7 TFL
Quinnen Williams is coming into his own as a great player. So is Greg Gaines, an overlooked recruit in 2014 and nearly a fifth round pick in 2019, and now one of the most beloved players on the LA Rams as they prepare to face the Arizona Cardinals in the playoffs. McVay’s plan to cultivate mass is paying off, not only for Gaines, but also for Aaron Donald.
Celebrity corner has become that much more crowded.
TAKE THE LA RAMS SURVEY: PLAYOFF EDITION! VOTING REMAINS OPEN TILL FRIDAY!