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E.J. Gaines impressive early in preseason

8/11/2014

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- For those that don't closely follow Missouri football, cornerback E.J. Gaines will always be the "other" St. Louis Rams 2014 draft pick from the home state school.

Even though Gaines was drafted a round before defensive end Michael Sam, he didn't make the two-hour trip east to St. Louis with nearly the fanfare of the NFL's first openly gay draft pick.

But, a little more than two weeks into his first NFL preseason and training camp, Gaines is working quickly to make a name for himself. And his coaches have taken notice.

“He’s just been making plays," coach Jeff Fisher said. "He’s very instinctive, a very conscientious, smart player. He’s picked the defense up really well and made plays. He’s a football player. He tackles, he covers, he’s got ball skills, so we’ll continue to get him some reps.”

Gaines certainly wasn't lacking for reps in Friday night's preseason opener against the Saints. For most of camp, Gaines has quietly been creeping his way up the depth chart.

Some of Gaines' ascent has been based on injuries as top corners such as Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson, Brandon McGee and Lamarcus Joyner have all missed time at various times.

In the preseason opener, the Rams were without the services of Jenkins, Johnson and McGee, which created a starting nod for Gaines. Because the Rams were relatively thin at the position, it also meant plenty of snaps. Pro Football Focus had Gaines down for a team-high 52 plays in the game.

Gaines made the most of those opportunities, flashing the physical, instinctive approach that made him successful at Missouri. He finished with a team-high six tackles and, aside from his role in allowing Brandin Cooks' 25-yard catch and run for a touchdown, was mostly solid in coverage.

“It was crazy, kind of surreal, like a dream come true," Gaines said. "I’ve been thinking about this moment since I was really young. So coming in and being able to start my first preseason game, it felt good.”

With three preseason games to go and some of those banged up corners scheduled to return, it stands to reason that Gaines' workload will decrease a bit over the coming weeks. As a sixth-round draft pick, Gaines is guaranteed nothing in terms of a roster spot.

Jenkins, Johnson and Joyner are almost certainly entrenched in three of the spots reserved for corners and McGee looks to be in good shape for another. The Rams have often kept just five corners under Fisher's guidance but this year could be different.

Early returns indicate the Rams have more talent at corner than safety and so the usual breakdown of five at each spot could be altered. Having Joyner capable of playing both spots also gives the Rams more flexibility in terms of the breakdown in the secondary.

But even if the Rams only keep five, Gaines is playing like he's set on locking down that spot. After being drafted later than expected and living in the shadow of his history-making teammate, Gaines should have no problems finding the motivation to finish the job.

"I always play with a chip on my shoulder," Gaines said. "I think that’s what really makes me a good player -- expecting to be kind of underrated. The draft is behind me though, like I said, so I’m just trying to concentrate on making this team, try to make some plays, and hopefully prove that I can play at this level.”

So far, so good.