One of the question marks that has haunted Chiefs fans this offseason is the cornerback position.
Even the most optimistic of fans will admit that there are... doubts as to how things will go at that particular position this season. After seeing Sean Smith (who fans argue about quite a bit, but was a solid corner last year) go to the Raiders (excuse me while I dry heave for about 45 minutes), the Chiefs are now left with Marcus Peters and a bunch of question marks at one of the most important positions in the NFL.
One of those question marks is Phillip Gaines.
Ever since the Chiefs took Gaines in the third round of the 2014 draft, he's been the source of a lot of discussion. The problem is most of that discussion has centered around "man, it'd be great if Gaines could stay healthy." I've written about his ability before, but seeing as he's in the lead for #2 CB this season, I figured it's about time we look at how Gaines played last year before suffering an ACL tear.
If you're not familiar with the way in which I grade corners, a full explanation can be found here. Short version? I watch every snap in coverage (legit coverage, not against a WR screen, getting picked, etc.) and grade it as a success or a failure, Pretty simple, no?
Something to keep in mind when it comes to Gaines' numbers is that this is a very small sample size. We're talking about roughly two and a quarter games here. That said, Gaines matched up against multiple very talented receivers during that time (Hopkins, Sanders, Thomas, and Cobb), so at least it's a glimpse of what he can do.
|Game||Success||Fail||Success %||Targets||Catches Allowed||Passes Defensed|
|HOU||28||12||70.0%||3||1 (15 yards)||1|
|DEN||25||5||83.3%||5||4 (40 yards)||0|
|Total||61||18||77.2%||8||5 (55 yards)||1|
Now again, I must repeat... this is a very small sample size. The odds that Gaines would have maintained this kind of success rate over an entire season are pretty low, considering he's approaching shutdown corner numbers. So it's important not to take away from this "hey, MN says Gaines is elite!!!!"
Keeping that in mind, Gaines was very impressive in limited action. In my opinion he did better against DeAndre Hopkins than any other corner the Chiefs had, including celebrated rookie Marcus Peters. Additionally, Gaines absolutely blanketed Demaryius Thomas the vast majority of the times the two matched up, and performed admirably (though not as well) against Sanders, who is one of the tougher receivers in the league to cover.
Finally, against Randall Cobb (albeit in a very short amount of time) Gaines was on his way to a great game. Before Gaines exited late in the first quarter, Cobb (who was being primarily covered by Gaines in the slot) had been targeted once and seen that pass fall incomplete. Further, Gaines only got beat once during that short time (when matched up in man. He did get illegally picked out a play once, which allowed Cobb to run free, but Rodgers didn't throw it to Cobb).
The play IMMEDIATELY following Gaines getting hurt (which led to the Chiefs trying Branch in the slot), Cobb caught a short touchdown pass. He went on to catch 7 passes for 91 yards and 3 touchdowns, all of which came after Gaines got hurt.
Is that attributable entirely to Gaines? No. But it's a good indicator of how much better Gaines was than the Chiefs' other options at corner, particularly in the slot.
Gaines possesses phenomenal speed and above-average quickness. This allows him to be very aggressive in pressing at the line of scrimmage, because he knows he can turn and run with anyone if he doesn't get the jam.
Gaines (nickel CB here) combines ability to press aggressively with phenomenal speed. That's a tough combo to find. pic.twitter.com/xu8nMZNf1S— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) June 18, 2016
Gaines presses more often and more aggressively, by my eyes than Sean Smith ever did. Smith was more of a re-direct kind of corner, using his size to guide receivers out of their routes. Gaines is more of a puncher, which I absolutely love.
One of the best evidences of Gaines' speed is how effortless he makes it look. He really never APPEARS to be running as fast as he can, but receivers just don't get separation on him often regardless of the type of route they're running. That speed also allows Gaines to recover if he "guesses" wrong on a route and ends up in a bad place because of it.
If I could name Smith's biggest weakness as a corner, it's that he lacked the speed to compensate when things went wrong. He made up for this by having the savvy to prevent things from going too often and generally good footwork. The times when he got turned the wrong way, though, he was through. He just couldn't catch up once a WR with any speed got past him.
Not so with Gaines. On one snap against the Texans Gaines made a mistake in the type of route he was facing, resulting in the receiver (Shorts) getting roughly 6-7 yards of separation on a deep post. Not ideal, obviously. However, Gaines was able to turn on the afterburners and close the gap to about 2-3 yards before the ball could arrive. It turned out to be a badly underthrown ball, and Gaines was able to successfully knock it away.
Now, that doesn't go down as a "win," because a better thrown pass would've still had Gaines in trouble. However, he was able to make it more difficult for the WR and QB than a corner with lesser speed could have after losing on the route initially.
Gaines possesses hips that are remarkably smooth, allowing him to flip back and forth as he tries to mirror receivers on their routes. His footwork, while not great, doesn't hurt him on many snaps (part of being physically gifted means small errors in footwork isn't going to kill you).
He also seems to have worked on his instincts and understanding of the position since his rookie year. Gaines played at a small school and there were serious concerns about his ability to handle the jump in competition. During preseason of his rookie year it seemed like he just could not figure out how to cover certain routes, getting beat consistently. That issue hasn't completely vanished with regards to crossing routes, but he has improved a great deal and he demonstrated multiple times his knowledge of how to properly handle what NFL wide receivers will throw at you.
Doesn't fall for the stutter at the line (just sits and waits), quick feet, smooth hips to recover on tough route. pic.twitter.com/Hzb4KWE3Sb— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) June 18, 2016
This snap contains a few things I really like. The inside-outside (or whatever you want to call it route) that's run here is one of the more difficult routes to defend (and run properly). Now, it's not like the receiver here ran this route fantastically well (the cut was slower than you'd like to see), but his job was made VERY difficult from the very start due to how Gaines played it.
This starts at the very beginning of the play. Gaines is showing like he plans on pressing, and Shorts (who has hands issues but isn't bad at getting separation) tries to beat him off the line with a stutter move, which is basically a way for receivers to get CB's moving the wrong direction laterally rather than getting their hands on the receiver. It's an effective technique that Jeremy Maclin uses time and again to destroy corners.
Of course, for every reaction there's an equal and opposite reaction. So what are corners supposed to do when they're dealing with a quick wideout who's faking back and forth?
Nothing. Don't do anything. You sit and wait for them to make a real move into their route, at which point you begin to mirror. The beauty of this technique (can you call doing nothing a technique?) is that it leads to the wide receiver wasting a CRITICAL split-second to dance around while you calmly watch, and he gains no advantage whatsoever.
With that in mind, re-watch the snap. Gaines doesn't even twitch as Shorts dances around, which means he's got his weight properly centered to move with Shorts when he cuts inside. And THAT means that Gaines isn't overcompensating or rushing as he follows Shorts inside, so his balance is maintained when Shorts cuts back outside and he follows him accordingly.
Gaines almost gets his hips flipped the wrong way, but recovers nicely (again, he's a smooth athlete) and is never out of position. Great coverage on a really tough route, and it was won in part by Gaines' awareness and technique to start off the play.
When Gaines is in zone, he keeps his eyes on the QB but seems to stay aware of what his responsibilities are (you have to be able to track the guys near your area while watching the QB, which is one reason zone coverage is tough). While I definitely prefer him in man coverage at the line, he's able to do his job in those situations.
I saw two weaknesses in Gaines in the snaps I watched. First, he does still struggle at time covering crossing routes when he's playing off man coverage. It seems like he's not very good at recognizing that particular route for whatever reason. Interestingly enough, he doesn't have this issue when he's playing press man. Perhaps he's able to "feel" what he's unable to see when he's got a hand on the receiver? I don't know, but it's something to watch this next year.
Another issue for Gaines is that he'll lose his footing a little more than Smith or Peters, at least from what I watched. I can't tell if this is a result of his technique and footwork not being quite as clean, or if he's simple moving so fast that it inevitably leads to a few slips. It's not often, and he recovers pretty well generally, but it's something he needs to clean up.
Overall, Gaines looked really, really good out there against some tough competition. He's also the rare corner that can seamlessly shift between outside and inside coverage without any issue. His tremendous speed, quickness, and length combination is a gift that not many corners possess. If he stays healthy, I'm very confident he'll do well enough to make Chiefs fans happy.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go collect every four-leaf clover and rabbit's foot in existence.