When you think about college football programs that produce NFL talent Rice, isn't one that comes to mind immediately. Joining Conference USA in 2005 after formerly being in the Western Atlantic Conference (WAC) its players do not receive the national attention even if they deserve it. One player deserving is the Owls cornerback Phillip Gaines. Gaines has been the Owls best cover corner over the last two years. In 2012 he amassed 33 tackles, two tackles for loss and a ridiculous 18 passes defensed. In 2013 Gaines wasn't targeted as much however he finished with 36 tackles, four tackles for loss, four interceptions, and nine passes defensed. He earned 1st-team All-Conference USA honors for both of those years. He finished his college career 38 career pass break ups which is a Rice record.
Gaines measured in at the NFL Combine at 6-foot, 193 pounds with 31 7/8 inch arm length. At the Combine he show cased probably his best asset, his athleticism. Gaines ran a 4.38s 40-yard dash (second fastest of all CB's at the Combine behind Gilbert's 4.37), he completed the 3-cone drill in 6.67s (second fastest of all CBs and fifth fastest of all players at the Combine) and completed the 20-yard shuffle in 4.04s. ( fourth fastest among all CBs at the Combine.)
On tape Gaines athleticism shows up frequently. He has a quick backpedal and he keeps his center-of-gravity low. His footwork is impressive and he shows off very quick feet. He confirmed this at the Combine easily moving through every drill. He has the athletic ability to backpedal or shuffle and still make a play on any route. He effortlessly flips his hips to mirror a receiver through the route. The explosion out of his backpedal is apparent. Great closing speed allows him to cover up any mistakes in his reads or gambles he takes.
However Gaines is much more than just an athlete. He has tremendous awareness in zone coverage. Gaines has feels the routes behind him and flows with the QBs eyes to the football. He has an obviously high football I.Q. and it shows up in games. He sees the field incredibly well and uses this awareness along with his speed to make plays on throws that may not originally have been in his zone. Below is an example of his ability to feel the route behind him and make a play on the football.
In this play we see that Rice is set up in a zone defense. With no receiver in his zone Gaines looks behind him to see how the routes are developing. He quickly sees the corner route is going to be open and uses his speed to close on the receiver. Then Gaines times his jump well to knock the pass away on what should have been an easy touchdown. This is an incredibly athletic play and not many corners could have made it.
Not always correct in his reads, he makes up for it with his athleticism.The play below highlights this.
The receiver fakes an inside move which causes Gaines to hesitate. When he opens up for an outside release he opens too wide taking a bad step. He is able to recover from this and along with a slightly late throw Gaines makes an excellent play on the football.
As a captain of the Owls Gaines showed leadership as well as toughness. Despite his size he isn't afraid to tackle and help in run support which is a plus for any cornerback.
It isn't hard to see why Gaines was targeted only 40 times all year and allowed only 13 receptions in 2013 or on 32.5 percent of the passes thrown his way . With nine pass break ups and four interceptions, he had his hand on the ball 13 times of the 40 targets. This means that Gaines had his hands on the football almost 1 out of every 3 passes in 2013. That number is the same as Kyle Fuller and is better than top corners Gilbert (3.93), Dennard (4.25) and Roby (4.93). Of the other corners projected to go on or before Day 2 of the draft only Verrett (2.75) had a better pass defensed rate.
Gaines biggest weakness I have seen on tape is his strength. He is thinly built and underdeveloped muscularly. He was only able to do 11 reps during the bench press at the Combine. In the three full games I watched Gaines was targeted 14 times. He broke up four passes, intercepted a fifth and allowed only four catches. Of those four catches three were on comeback routes and the fourth was on a back shoulder pass. In each case he was facing a bigger receiver who used their superior strength to get separation. This might be a concern to heavy man-to-man coverage teams. Gaines will need to improve his strength to become better in man-to-man coverage. The lack of strength also makes it hard for Gaines to get off blocks in the run game or on screens.
He also is the leading candidate for the 2014 Ike Taylor award which goes to the most athletic corner with stone hands. Gaines doesn't always make the catch and has dropped a few easy interceptions in the past.
Finally like most corners Gaines isn't a strong tackler. He isn't afraid to be physical and help in the run game but he lunges, throws his shoulder and doesn't always wrap up the ball carrier. This lead to some missed tackles.
There is also a few minor red flags. The first is health concerns with Gaines. In his freshman year he missed three games due to injury, his junior year he played in only five games before missing the rest of the year earning a medical redshirt. This can lead to durability concerns. The second red flag is that Gaines was suspended for the first game of the 2013 season for a violation of team rules. This suspension could have been for a variety of thing but was not disclosed publicly. Teams are definitely going to look into this suspension as a potential red flag.
Phillip Gaines is a long, athletic corner with excellent vision and movement skills. He will need to improve his strength to handle NFL receivers in man-to-man coverage. Gaines however displays good football I.Q. and awareness to suggest that he can excel in a zone scheme. The Steelers would be remiss to not look in to Gaines as a potential replacement for Ike Taylor. He possess all the necessary skills they desire. I have read that he is projected to go in the middle rounds but that doesn't match what I see on tape. Don't be surprise when Gaines ends up being drafted on Day 2 of the 2014 NFL draft because his play justifies just that.