ST. LOUIS – E.J. Gaines had expected to hear his name called in the NFL draft long before the St. Louis Rams finally selected him in the sixth round. That frustration from months ago started to fade away once his name was being called over the Edward Jones Dome speakers.
With the Rams holding starters out of the lineup to assess their younger players, Gaines got the start at cornerback in the preseason opener Friday night and racked up a team-high six tackles – five in the first half.
"It was crazy, kind of surreal, like a dream come true," said Gaines, a Fort Osage High School graduate. "I've been thinking about this moment since I was really young. So coming in and being able to start my first preseason game, it felt good."
The Rams were off on Sunday. They play their next preseason game on Saturday against Green Bay.
Gaines, a two-time all-conference selection just down Interstate 70 at Missouri, was disappointed by his long wait on draft day but ended up on a team where he could earn meaningful playing time. The Rams are unproven in the secondary and loaded up on defensive backs in the draft, taking cornerback Lamarcus Joyner in the second round and safety Maurice Alexander in the fourth.
Even the starters are young, with none having more than two years of experience. Gaines is currently listed as a backup on the depth chart behind Janoris Jenkins, but none of the team's top three cornerbacks played in the 26-24 loss to New Orleans on Friday night.
That put Gaines in the starting lineup, and his name was called again when he tackled Marques Colston on the third play of the game.
"I always play with a chip on my shoulder. I think that's what really makes me a good player – expecting to be kind of underrated," said Gaines, a touch undersized at 5-foot-10. "The draft is behind me, though, like I said, so I'm just trying to concentrate on making this team, try to make some plays, and hopefully prove that I can play at this level."
After ranking second in the SEC last season with five interceptions and third on the Tigers with 75 tackles, Gaines quickly proved to coach Jeff Fisher's staff that he could be valuable as a gunner on special teams. He's only added to that with his contributions on defense.
"He's just been making plays. He's very instinctive, a very conscientious, smart player," Fisher said. "He's picked the defense up really well and made plays . He's a football player. He tackles, he covers, he's got ball skills, so we'll continue to get him some reps."
Fisher said many of the starters who rested against the Saints should play against the Packers, which could bump Gaines into a backup role.
"All the younger guys that are getting in there, getting reps, you always want guys to go out there and give it their best," said strong safety T.J. McDonald, a third-round pick in last year's draft who started 10 games last season. "We're going to do whatever we can on the sidelines to help them get there. I know I was in their shoes a year ago and things are flying around so fast your first preseason game. Anything we can do to help, we'll do it."