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Phillip Gaines' toughest test can tell us what he can do for Chiefs in 2015

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

One of the players who has generated a great deal of buzz throughout training camp has been cornerback Phillip Gaines. He's a guy I've written about repeatedly as someone to keep an eye on, and from the reports we're hearing from those watching camp he's been tough for receivers to shake during camp (except, apparently, for De'Anthony Thomas, who decided to steal his soul on this play).

The interesting thing with the talk about Gaines is that it often centers around how "if he's improved" he'll be a contributor to the Chiefs defense. That's a common phrase we hear about second year players like Gaines.

It bothers me a little hearing it phrased that way, though. Because as far as I've seen reviewing the tape, Gaines doesn't need to "improve" to be a contributor. In fact, from multiple games I'd reviewed prior to this article, Gaines was already playing corner at a fairly high level pretty consistently.

I wanted to test my theory. I wanted to see how Gaines did in the most difficult situation possible. Which brought me to Week 13 of 2014 and the Denver Broncos.Most notably, it brought me to Gaines in a game where he spent much of the day matched up against Emmanuel Sanders, one of the better receivers in the NFL when it comes to creating separation from corners.

Phillip Gaines doesn't have to improve to be a good corner at the NFL level. He was already there last year.

Peyton Manning loves to feast on rookies. Remember Marcus Cooper's magical rookie run coming to a crashing halt in part due to Manning eviscerating him repeatedly (no easy task, eviscerating someone repeatedly)? Manning LOVES to find a weak spot on defenses and pick at it over and over until the defense breaks. A rookie corner matched up against Sanders SHOULD, in theory, be just such a weakness.

So to the tape I went. For those of you who haven't taken this journey with me before, when I review a corner's tape I generally do it a certain way. First, I quantify only snaps where the CB is in man coverage. That's pretty easy in Bob Sutton's defense as man coverage is played the majority of the time. Second, I track every single route run against the CB and determine whether it's a "win" or a "loss." (H/T to Cian Fahey, an analyst I enjoy, for being an example in this method).

What is a "win?" It's where a CB has good enough coverage that it would require a fantastic throw or an incredible catch by a WR to make a reception. There's no such thing as perfect coverage in the NFL. Sometimes you have great coverage and give up a catch (this is why tracking "receptions allowed" isn't always indicative of a CB's performance). So a win is when a corner makes it really, really tough for the WR / QB to make a play.

By tracking wins and losses, we can get a real feeling for how a corner played all game, not just on throws he was "targeted" (a popular stat). Imagine a WR running open all day but only targeted 3-4 times? Does that mean the corner "shut him down?" Of course not!

So we're throwing Gaines out of the frying pan and into the fire (no idea what the frying pan was. But I like that expression, so we're using it) and tracking his man coverage snaps, wins, losses, catches given up, yards given up, and passes defensed against one of the most dangerous receivers in the NFL and a quarterback who loves to pick on rookies.

In other words, we're setting Gaines up to fail. Because if you really want to know who a player is, look at what they did in the most difficult situation possible. And how did Gaines do? The numbers are... well, they're surprising.

Snaps Wins Losses Win Percentage Catches Allowed Yards Allowed Passes Defensed
31 23 8 74.20% 4 48 1

So let's talk about those numbers a little bit, then talk about the film.

While a 74 percent success rate might seem low to you if you're not familiar with this type of grading system for corners, let me set your mind at ease; a 74 percent success rate is really, really solid for a corner. And when it's up against an exceptional receiver, it's phenomenal.

For a little context, remember when I examined 400(-ish) routes that Jeremy Maclin ran? If you don't, that article is here. The main point as it relates to this article is that I examined "separation percentage" for Maclin, which is basically exactly like "wins" and "losses" for a corner, just flipped around. Any time a WR gets separation, that's a loss for a corner. Right? Right!

Jeremy Maclin achieved separation on nearly 50 percent of his routes. In other words, he was about twice as successful against the entire league as Sanders was against Gaines. Now granted, Maclin is exceptional at creating separation ... but so is Sanders.

It's also worth noting that of the eight "losses" for Gaines, two of them (and one of the receptions he gave up) came entirely due to pick plays. In other words, a quarter of the time Sanders beat Gaines, he didn't do it on his own. He needed help.

Because Phillip Gaines is freaking STICKY, man.

Look Gaines wasn't perfect, so we'll talk about the times he "lost" to Sanders first. The plays Sanders was able to separate from Gaines consisted of well-run routes in which Gaines seemed to essentially guess wrong about where Sanders was going. Basically, several times Sanders was able to fake Gaines into going the wrong direction and get away from him.

However, much more often than not Gaines stayed right with Sanders throughout his route. Even the 48 yards allowed by Gaines is a misleading stat in that of those yards, 23 of them came on a play where Gaines had great coverage and was simply beaten by a perfectly timed and executed back shoulder throw. Look at this.

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This screenshot is taken about a tenth of a second after the ball arrives. Gaines is RIGHT THERE, Manning just timed the throw well and Sanders did a great job with a tough, contested catch.

You know how you could tell Gaines was getting to Sanders? By watching how Sanders felt the need to preen around after this play. You'd think beating a rookie corner would be run of the mil to Sanders, but it wasn't. Because Gaines had been in his hip pocket all day.

In other words, the only time Sanders was able to make a damaging play all game against Gaines was when he had a great throw and made an exceptional catch. Gaines made him earn it. Most rookie corners just give it away for free. Not so with Phillip (I can't decide if I like calling him "Phillip" or not. Makes him sound a little fancy for my taste).

And really, when I say Gaines was stuck like glue on Sanders all day, I very much mean all day. Yes, he had his "losses" in coverage, but the vast majority of the game he and Sanders looked like they were participating in a 3-legged race together.

Here's Gaines stuck on Sanders like a fly to crap across the middle of the field.

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Not impressed? Here's Gaines stride for stride with Sanders on a deep ball attempt at the end of the 1st half. He's all over him like drool on a baby

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Fun fact about this particular play (I mean, besides the fun fact that Gaines was close enough to smell what Sanders had for supper the night before); it was the play following a holding penalty against Gaines.

Now, i know what you're thinking... why would a penalty against Gaines be a "fun fact?" Aren't penalties, you know, a bad thing?

Sure, generally. But when they're the direct result of Sanders flopping like a FIFA player trying to buy some time. Seriously, look at this. Pathetic. Essentially, Sanders is a bad person, and he should feel bad. He also whined for a flag after this play, verifying my opinion that he's likely some kind of fascist.

Anyway, what were we talking about? Right, Gaines following Sanders around like a 13-year-old girl tracking a member of One Direction.

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Watching this play in real time, Manning looked to Sanders and then went to another read. He very likely did this because Gaines was essentially Sanders' cape.

Know what the result of that play was? A sack and a fumble. That happened in part because Justin Houston is a fire-breathing dragon, but also in part because Gaines was on Sanders like a newlywed couple at a romantic comedy.

Oh, and in case you think Gaines was only able to stick with Sanders on plays where Sanders was running down the field routes, that's not the case. Here's a look at an attempt by Sanders to run a comeback route after faking going down the field. I mean, with Gaines sticking with him down the field he MUST be cheating deep and leaving himself vulnerable to quick comebacks / outs, right?

Nope.

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Gaines is already stopped and moving back as Sanders attempts to come back to the quarterback. He is, you can see, squarely between Sanders and Manning.

Gaines possesses exceptional quickness as a corner as well as flexible hips. This allows him to keep up with cuts like this, even when executed by a receiver as talented as Sanders. That type of quickness and flexibility isn't common in corners of his height. It's a unique weapon.

Gaines DOES things he needs to work on. He has to get better at recognizing pick plays, for starters. The few times they were run at him he seemed taken by surprise and allowed separation to the receiver he was covering. As much as we complain about pick plays being exclusive to Denver, the fact is all NFL teams use rub routes a great deal in today's NFL. Gaines needs to communicate with the rest of the secondary on those types of plays, as well as how to get around the pick more quickly.

Outside of that and his occasionally guessing on cuts ... I'm just not seeing a lot of negative to nitpick. His ability to play well consistently against one of the tougher matchups in the league is really, really, really impressive. It's one thing to shut down the number two receiver for, say, the Browns. It's a whole different ball game to prevent Peyton Manning from picking on you while you cover a fantastic route runner with speed.

Gaines is able to effortlessly run down the field with even speedy wide receivers. It's jarring how he doesn't seem to even be running full speed while he stays in Sanders' hip pocket down the field. That long speed, combined with his solid quickness and fluid hips, makes him incredibly difficult to shake. It also doesn't hurt him that he jams well, using his oddly long arms (no offense, Phillip. But dem some long arms!) to jostle receivers out of position.

I could show you another dozen screenshots that look just like the ones above to demonstrate how well Gaines did on the majority of his snaps vs. Sanders. But the point stands; Gaines was CHUCKED into the fire and came out relatively unscathed.

It's impossible to say for sure how Gaines will do in his second year. Some players regress. Some improve. But know this; Phillip Gaines doesn't have to improve to be a good corner at the NFL level. He was already there last year. And if he improved? Well...

I've never thought of a football play as sexy before. But that's just sexy.

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