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Big payday looms for Bills cornerback E.J. Gaines in free agency

The Buffalo Bills’ defense was a different unit when E.J. Gaines was on the field in 2017.

The team’s record with and without the veteran cornerback explicitly displays that. The Bills went 8-3 when Gaines played and 1-4 when he didn’t on their way to a 9-7 record.

“Eric Wood actually pointed that out,” Gaines said with a laugh last month before the team’s regular-season finale against Miami. “I’m trying not to focus on that too much.”

Gaines preferred at the time to keep his focus on the Dolphins, but now that the calendar has turned to 2018, his future in Buffalo will be one of the key questions for the Bills this offseason. He’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March as the start of the NFL’s new league year.

“Hopefully the Bills will want to bring me back,” Gaines said. “This is probably the best situation for me, and honestly I love it here. You know, I love the city, I love the coaches, and just being able to come in and help somebody who wants me here, it was a good thing. It's all I ever wanted, really, and I got it here.”

Gaines was an afterthought when acquired by the Bills in August as part of the trade that sent wide receiver Sammy Watkins to the Los Angeles Rams. The second-round draft pick that also came to Buffalo was thought to be the centerpiece of the deal from the Bills’ perspective, but they also got a darn good player, too.

Gaines finished the season ranked 24th among all cornerbacks according to the analytics website Pro Football Focus. In 11 games, he finished with 59 tackles, three forced fumbles, nine passes defensed and one interception. Opponents averaged 7.4 yards per attempt when Gaines was out, and just 6.1 yards per attempt when he played as he proved to be an excellent fit in coach Sean McDermott’s defensive scheme, which is one reason why it would make sense for the Bills to prioritize bringing Gaines back.

They are sure to have some competition, though. He’ll be just 26 during the 2018 season, and young, productive cornerbacks get paid in the NFL. Last month, ESPN produced a list of seven free agents “who will get paid more than you think in 2018,” and Gaines was on it.

So what can Gaines expect to make on the open market? That’s tricky. He’s got an injury history that will potentially hurt his value, missing five games in 2017 with a combination of knee, hamstring and groin injuries. That’s on top of missing five games in 2016 and the entire 2015 season with a Lisfranc injury.

“I had a lot of things before got traded here – things I really didn't have time to take care of,” Gaines said. “I'm going to take this offseason and take care of my body, get right for next season so I can come in healthy.”

Finding a comparable contract for Gaines is a challenge. The top of the cornerback market last season was set by the Jacksonville Jaguars, who signed former Texans cornerback A.J. Bouye to a five-year deal worth up to $67.5 million. Bouye had made just 17 starts over his four seasons in Houston, but Jacksonville had a ton of cap space and gambled that he was just hitting his stride. That paid off in a major way in 2017 as Bouye established himself as one of the best cornerbacks in the league.

While it seems unlikely that Gaines would land such a deal, there are plenty of teams with gobs of cap space and it only takes one general manager willing to write the check. A better comparable for Gaines could be the three-year, $30 million contract signed by Logan Ryan with the Tennessee Titans. Such a contract would give the Bills some protection in case Gaines can’t stay healthy and reward him for a strong season.

It’s also a good year for teams who might be interested in cornerbacks in free agency. On an ESPN list of the top 50 pending unrestricted free agents, Gaines comes in at No. 46. There are seven cornerbacks listed ahead of him – all of whom will be 28 or younger next season.

“I definitely try to put good film out there any time I'm playing, and that's why I like to be healthy when I'm on the field, because I know when I'm healthy, the sky's the limit for me,” Gaines said. “I’m excited about the free agency market.”

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