EARTH CITY, Mo. -- After emerging as one of the steals of the 2014 NFL draft, St. Louis Rams cornerback E.J. Gaines' rookie season came to an abrupt end when he suffered a Week 16 concussion against the New York Giants.
Gaines missed the season finale at Seattle, putting a damper on what to that point had been the most pleasant surprise of the Rams' season. That Gaines missed a game because of an injury brought his season full circle after he'd become a starter on the heels of the team's many cornerback injuries in the preseason.
It's what happened in the time between injuries to the likes of Trumaine Johnson and Gaines' concussion, though, that has the Rams looking at Gaines' future with nothing but optimism. Despite bouncing between outside corner and the slot, Gaines was one of the defense's most consistent performers.
In 15 games, Gaines had 70 tackles, two forced fumbles, two interceptions and eight pass breakups. There were the bumps you'd expect from a rookie sixth-round cornerback along the way, but Gaines quickly curried favor with his coaches by almost always being in the right spot at the right time.
"E.J., I can’t say enough about what he did for us last year as a starter and as an inside player in the nickel," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "He can come out there and compete outside. Our expectation is that last year Lamarcus would be the inside third corner and that took a little longer and scheme was an issue. It was a good deal for our defense when you look at his production and what he did and his body of work. He made very few mistakes."
Gaines' football acumen has him playing a much different role in these organized team activities. While Gaines was hoping to compete for a roster spot last year as a sixth-round pick, he's now in prime position to win a starting job outside. The Rams have worked him mostly at outside corner opposite Janoris Jenkins during OTAs and seem to like the idea of having Lamarcus Joyner handling nickel duties with Johnson as a primary backup.
There still figures to be some competition between Johnson and Gaines as training camp approaches, however.
"Our thought is that we’re going to have E.J. compete outside and even inside and it gives us depth," Fisher said at the March owners meetings.
In order to win the job on a more permanent basis, Gaines has taken to focusing on the details this offseason. He said he's fully recovered from the concussion and is spending extra time in the film room studying where receivers line up, route concepts and what quarterbacks check to so that he can see things before they happen.
Gaines also wants to provide defensive coordinator Gregg Williams with the flexibility to be multiple in his coverage schemes while allowing him to dial up various blitzes without having to worry about his cornerbacks.
"I feel like my all-around game can be better," Gaines said. "I'm working a lot on my man to man coverage, press man and off-man. The concepts of routes. That's a lot of the things the coaches and Janoris talk about. He has great instincts and able to jump routes. You see things like that and I feel like that’s where I can grow as far as the corner spot."
Gaines believes that improving in those areas will give him a chance to lock down a cornerback spot for a long time, especially with Jenkins and Johnson scheduled for free agency after the season.
"I feel like they know I have high expectations out of myself to come out here and compete like I usually do, whether that's at corner, nickel, special teams, whatever," Gaines said. "I'll come out and compete for the job but I'm definitely going for that corner spot."