E.J. Gaines learned a valuable lesson last year: The grass in Cleveland isn’t necessarily greener than it is in Buffalo.
Gaines is back with the Bills after a one-season detour down the 90 westbound with the Browns. The veteran cornerback, who is entering his sixth NFL season, returned to Buffalo on a one-year contract worth up to $2.1 million.
That’s just about half of the one-year, $4 million deal Gaines signed to leave the Bills for the Browns a year ago, an indication of how things never clicked in Cleveland the way they did in Buffalo in 2017.
“I felt comfortable and confident in this defense,” Gaines told The Buffalo News during spring practices. “The guys that are here, it’s a good camaraderie, good team environment. Nobody’s too big for the team, so I was really excited to get back.”
The circumstances surrounding Gaines’ return are different than the first time he came to the Bills. Back in 2017, he was part of a blockbuster trade in which the Bills shipped wide receiver Sammy Watkins to the Los Angeles Rams for Gaines and a second-round draft pick. He admits now that he wasn’t in the right mindset after that deal, which required him to move across the country and learn a new defense.
This year, however, Gaines was free to sign with any of the league’s 32 teams, and knew what he had in Buffalo.
“Really, I just knew that this was a place that was about winning,” he said. “Honestly, it's getting a little later in my career. Being a vet, I just knew I wanted to win. That's what I'm about right now. I know coach (Sean) McDermott is all about that, too, so I'm just excited.”
Of course, the Bills had to want Gaines, too.
“It was mutual interest,” McDermott said. “We were interested in him and he was interested in coming back to us. I think it goes back to … guys that have played for the Bills since we’ve been here and knowing that something is different – knowing that they enjoy one of the better years of their career here and then they go somewhere else and say, ‘Hey, maybe the pasture isn’t always greener.’ And so, I think guys like being around this place, they like playing for this fan base and they like what we’re doing.’ ”
The Bills were interested in a reunion based on Gaines’ solid play in 2017. He started 11 games and made 59 tackles, one interception and nine passes defensed. It was the best season since his rookie year in 2014, when he started 15 games for the St. Louis Rams and made 70 tackles, two interceptions and 14 passes defensed.
Last year with the Browns, Gaines played in just six games (two starts), finishing with 12 tackles, one interception and three passes defensed. Injuries have been a major issue for Gaines most of his career, and that continued last year. He suffered two concussions in the span of one month, forcing the Browns to shut him down for the season.
“I spent this whole offseason focusing on my injuries,” Gaines said. “I think that's what the Bills felt comfortable about, too, is just seeing how I came in and worked different this time, really just focused on my body. I know I need to stay healthy for a full season.”
Gaines is in a good spot to have a chance to do that for the first time in his career. The Bills’ new, $18 million performance center has all the tools a player could ask for when it comes to injury prevention.
Gaines’ role has the potential to be different in 2019. He got some work at nickel cornerback during the spring, and it’s likely that he’ll continue to bounce back and forth between the boundary and the slot.
Although Gaines won a starting job in short order in 2017, it will be a greater challenge to do that this year. Returning starter Levi Wallace is coming off an excellent second half of his rookie season and will enter training camp at the spot opposite Tre’Davious White. The Bills also signed Kevin Johnson, a former first-round draft pick of the Houston Texans, to a one-year deal to compete for a spot in a talented secondary.
“Being a sixth-round pick coming out, I've always had to work for my spot on the team and on the field,” Gaines said. “That excites me more than anything. Man, I love competition. I feel like it makes the whole secondary grow. I feel like that's how I've made my whole career, honestly.”