OXNARD, Calif. -- In the competitive world of the NFL, more often than not one player's ascent comes at the expense of someone else. It's why "NFL" has long been considered an acronym for "Not For Long" rather than National Football League.
For a recent example, we need look no further than what happened with the Los Angeles Rams at cornerback over the course of the past year. Last year at this time, the Rams were set on Janoris Jenkins as their No. 1 corner, with E.J. Gaines and Trumaine Johnson poised for a training-camp battle to win the spot opposite him.
With Jenkins and Johnson headed for free agency, there seemed to be little doubt about which player was in the Rams' long-term plans. Jenkins was the top guy and Gaines, entering his second season, was the odds-on favorite to claim the other job. Then, on Aug. 2, the first weekend of training camp, Gaines got stepped on while covering a wideout in drills.
The result was a season-ending Lisfranc injury in his foot. The domino effect spilled through 2015 and into this offseason. Johnson had his best season after claiming the starting job, posting seven interceptions. The Rams used the franchise tag to keep him over Jenkins, who signed a lucrative contract with the New York Giants. And now Gaines is working his way back from the injury with free-agent signee Coty Sensabaugh hoping to push him for the job.
"It’s the name of the game," Gaines said. "It’s the National Football League and that’s just how it goes. It’s crazy just to see how the room has changed since I was gone for that season."
Gaines is the first to admit that a position room without Jenkins has taken some getting used to. He said Jenkins was the jokester of the room and the leader he and his teammates followed. That's a role to which Johnson has ascended after signing his one-year, franchise-tag tender worth $13.952 million this offseason.
Gaines, meanwhile, is simply looking to get back to where he was before the injury derailed his second season. That's an ongoing process that the Rams aren't in a hurry to make happen. Although Gaines has considered himself healthy for some time now, the Rams are doing what they generally do with injured players in the offseason program, which is to say they're bringing him along slowly.
For the time being, Gaines is participating in individual drills but mostly avoiding team work so he can be ready for training camp. He's hopeful he can get more involved in seven-on-seven and even some 11-on-11 before organized team activities end next week.
"Typically speaking, there’s always going to be a few offseason surgeries," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "We call them ‘tune-ups.' You’ve got to make sure the guys are ready and able to compete. We have a lot of different practice categories. Most are ‘full,’ some are ‘limited,’ some are not permitted to practice right now. Our training staff does a great job keeping us informed and in turn we’re obviously trying to get everybody back on the field.”
Gaines said that the things he is able to do, he's doing at 100 percent, but he also understands why the Rams aren't rushing him back even if his time away from the game made him realize just how much he loves it.
"It kind of puts it in perspective, you know how much the game really means to you and not to take it for granted because it can be taken from you at any time," Gaines said. "I know I love the game of football and I’m just passionate about getting back out there with my guys."
When Gaines does return, he has no plans to alter his approach. Gaines has been something of an underdog for most of his career. He arrived at the University of Missouri as a three-star recruit before becoming a three-year starter and first-team All-SEC cornerback as a senior. That wasn't enough to get him much love in the draft, where the Rams landed him in the sixth round, No. 188 overall, in 2014.
As a rookie, Gaines stepped in for an injured Johnson and didn't give the job back after posting 70 tackles, two interceptions and a fumble recovery in 15 games. The goodwill generated by that rookie year has mostly disappeared after missing last season and is buried somewhere underneath the questions of how the 24-year-old will bounce back from the injury.
Gaines makes it clear he feels most at home when there are doubters.
"I just think that’s my type of game: playing with a chip on my shoulder," Gaines said. "So I think it won’t be any different this year coming in and competing against those guys and hopefully coming away with the starting job like I did my rookie year. I think competition brings out the best in everybody. I know it does in me."
Let there be no sugarcoating: Gaines intends to stake his claim to the job that might have been his a year ago were he not on the wrong end of fate.
"That should be everybody’s goal in this league," Gaines said. "There are no backup players truly in the NFL. I’m just excited to get back out there and compete against these guys and hopefully bring out the best in them as well."