KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Second-year cornerback Phillip Gaines has come a long way since the 2014 season.
Gaines, who didn’t log a defensive snap until Week 7, commands attention through eight sessions of organized team activities for good reason.
The Chiefs’ third-round pick of the 2014 NFL Draft has made plays all over the field by breaking up passes or hauling in interceptions during team-related drills.
And Gaines’ emergence isn’t a big surprise to the coaching staff.
“You saw him continue to get better every week last year during the season,” coach Andy Reid said. “He’s gotten bigger and stronger. He’s lived in there with (strength and conditioning coach) Barry (Rubin), and so it’s paying off for him. He is making plays.”
But more importantly, the 24-year-old Gaines is fully healthy after battling through an assortment of injuries during his rookie campaign.
Gaines dealt with two concussions last season and appeared on the weekly injury reports throughout the second half with ankle, quad and groin ailments.
An ankle sprain in Week 10 limited Gaines to eight snaps on special teams, while the second concussion suffered during practice leading to Week 15 caused him to miss the game against the Oakland Raiders.
He sat out the final two games of the regular season with an illness, and the missed playing time isn’t lost on Gaines, who still found a way to contribute even as an observer.
“It was very frustrating because you always want to be out on the field,” Gaines said. “It sucked to be on the sideline, but I was helping out the teammates, telling them when they came to the sideline anything I saw.”
The Chiefs eased Gaines into action in 2014, where he initially saw a majority of action on special teams during the first half of the season.
Gaines drew his first career-start at nickel cornerback in Week 7 in place of Chris Owens, who was out with a knee injury, and went on to appear in 13 games (five starts), recording 17 solo tackles, four passes defensed and three special teams tackles.
The coaching staff’s increased confidence in Gaines reflected in his playing time.
Gaines logged 371 total snaps on defense from Weeks 7-14, including a season-high 82 defensive snaps in Week 13, after logging no snaps on defense in Weeks 1-5.
“There is a transition for everybody that comes in the league and I think each guy is a little different, each position is a little bit different,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “But I think he’s done a great job and I would echo your thought. I think he has come back and been really good in this camp so far.”
Gaines spent the offseason in Kansas City working out with Rubin to help with conditioning, and it has paid off as Reid pointed out.
The 6-1 Gaines said he played at 182 pounds in 2014, but has added weight in recent months to prepare for OTAs.
“I’m right around 190, I’m about 188,” Gaines said.
The weight gain hasn’t been a detriment for Gaines, who said he would like to stay between 188 and 193 pounds.
“We think he’s gotten a little stronger, which will help,” defensive backs coach Emmitt Thomas said. “He’s competing a little bit better. He’s definitely in better condition than he was last year, getting his hands on a lot of footballs. We just hope they turn into interceptions and not PBUs (pass breakups).”
The extra weight will also come in handy if where Gaines has lined up during OTAs holds true for the regular season when considering rookie cornerback Marcus Peters, the Chiefs’ first-round pick of the 2015 NFL Draft, has yet to practice.
Gaines has played predominately at the nickel cornerback position, a spot that leaves him vulnerable to facing blocks from bigger players.
“You have to have your head on a swivel,” Gaines said. “You have to attack them in ways that can work to your advantage. I’m not going in there trying to blow up any linemen or anything, but I’m going to do my job and hope for the best.”
In addition to bulking up, Gaines became a student of the game during the offseason months, spending time in the film room to enhance his performance.
“Anytime you can watch film and learn tendencies and stuff like that, you’re going to increase your play speed,” he said. “Once you focus on that and get everything working, you could be a good player.”
The Chiefs are currently practicing in shorts and helmet, of course.
While prudence demands to temper enthusiasm in the absence of contact, there is little doubt Gaines more than appears comfortable ahead of training camp when the pads eventually come on.
A healthy Gaines projects that aura not only on the practice field, but in his demeanor when compared to his rookie season.
“It’s a big difference,” Gaines said. “Just from pure confidence. Last year, you’re coming in and seeing all these players you’ve never seen before, never played with before. You’re not playing as fast as you usually do. Now that I got some playing time and saw how things move, I have a lot more confidence so I can play a lot faster.”
Cornerback Sean Smith agreed.
“More confidence,” Smith said of Gaines. “Coming in, started kind of shaky with him, but as the season progressed, he got better and better with his technique. And now, he’s just seeing the game more, route concepts, things of that nature, learning splits, releases and stems, just being a student of the game. He started to pick that thing up real well.”