South Carolina OG A.J. Cann enters the 2015 NFL Draft as one of the top pure offensive guards in his class. Offering a wealth of experience and well-rounded ability, the ever-steady and durable left guard started in all but one contest over the last four seasons.
After redshirting in 2010, Cann earned the starting job at left guard and never looked back, appearing in 51 games during his collegiate career at South Carolina ‒ the second most in team history. The compactly built guard, voted team captain by his peers in 2013,earned first-team All-SEC and second-team All-America honors to close out his senior year.
Although invited to the Senior Bowl, the four-year starter missed the game because of a minor knee injury.
Tale of the Tape
Standing 6-foot-3, the 23-year-old Cann weighed in at 313 pounds at the NFL Combine. However, due to a calf strain, the left guard did not take part in any drills, except the 225-pound bench press event. He tallied 26 total reps, placing him 12th among 37 offensive linemen.
After a truncated combine, Cann had another opportunity to showcase his physical attributes at South Carolina’s Pro Day. The lineman clocked a 5.46 second 40-yard dash and increased his bench press reps to 30. Cann also recorded a 32.5-inch vertical jump and a 109-inch broad jump – marks that would have placed him in the top ten among offensive linemen at the combine. He also took part in group workouts at both guard and center – a sign of potential positional flexibility that may increase his appeal.
What He Does Well
A powerful road-grader, Cann excels in the running game, playing with a consistently low pad level, strong hands and great leg drive to leverage blocks both at the point of attack and on the move.
In the two plays below, Cann leads the way on simple, but highly effective drive blocks, clearing a path at the point of attack for the ball carrier in short yardage situations:
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Cann fires off the snap with a low pad level and good bend at the knees, ensuring a strong base to draw upon as he fits into the block, latching on to the defender with tight hands/elbows. The left guard does a good job of driving his legs and rolling his hips forward in sequence, generating the upper body push needed to drive the block to the second level.
In similar instances, the offensive lineman consistently displayed sound technique and lower body flexibility in his hips and knees. His ability to maximize his power and control the direction of a block through technique – not strength alone – bodes well for his success in the NFL.
On the series of pull/trap blocks captured below, Cann shows off his short-area lateral movement, using quick feet and few wasted steps to cancel out a defender at the second level:
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Whether pull-blocking from the frontside or trap-blocking from the backside, Cann is comfortable executing on the move and in tight spaces. Starting with a heavy punch, the lineman uses his hands expertly while positioning his body to favorable angles on the eventual run direction.
Cann’s ability to shuffle within the tackle box and be light on his feet when moving to a second level defender makes him an attractive option for power run/man-blocking schemes that require pull blocks and traps.
Creating acres of space when assigned to block down on a defensive tackle, Cann exhibits explosive lateral burst off the snap and ideal hand placement:
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In the clip above, the left guard caves opposing defensive linemen with relative ease, wedging open big holes for the ball carrier to sprint through. At contact, Cann latches on and churns his feet, completely taking defenders out of the play.
Cann’s consistency, both in his technique and the results he achieves, should make his transition seamless as a run blocker.
In pass protection, the guard possesses enough strength to absorb initial contact from a pass rusher and anchor the pocket:
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As seen in the cutup, Cann reacts smoothly to the outside-inside pass rush moves, quickly clasping his hands in a vise-like manner on the defender. Once engaged, the lineman sinks his hips to endure the attack, resetting his lower body with a pressure hop and extending his arms to minimize the threat.
In other tape reviewed, Cann was equally stout against straight-forward bull-rush attempts, relying on strong hands and a wide base to enhance his natural upper body strength.
Stunt & Blitz Recognition
In the face of blitzes and pressure schemes, Cann generally keeps his cool, displaying good awareness and reaction time, as seen in the plays highlighted below:
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With his head on a swivel ready to identify a looping lineman or blitzing linebacker, the guard easily diffuses pass rush threats, doing his part to stabilize the pocket for the quarterback. In all three examples, the lineman demonstrates discipline and short-area agility, mirroring the movements of slanting defenders before nimbly shifting into his gap to handle the next incoming target. Cann not only picks off pass rushers, but completely removes them from the area, clearing a throwing or running lane for his QB.
Although the tape shows Cann to be a stable offensive lineman who makes very few glaring mistakes, he still has some technical issues to iron out as both a run and pass blocker. In particular, the lineman needs to improve his pass set mechanics as well as his footwork when blocking at the second level in the run and screen game.
Slow Pass Set
Cann has a tendency to be the last offensive lineman out of his stance when in pass protection, as shown below:
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In sharp contrast to the speed he fires out with when run blocking, Cann often leaves himself vulnerable by setting up slowly in pass protection. When failing to slide out of his stance in a timely manner, he struggles to gain proper depth. This significantly impairs his ability to engage the block with a good foundation below him. The slow start also opens the door for quicker defenders to get into his body and prevent him from using his hands effectively.
Some of these delayed reactions off the snap could be explained by a weight distribution issue in his three-point stance. If Cann is placing too much weight on his down hand, it could lead to some sluggishness when firing out of his stance.
In additional film reviewed, Cann also revealed an overly aggressive punch in pass protection at times, leading him to lunge and lose his balance. His skills to recover from being beaten were also lacking.
Cann has some room for growth when targeting blocks at the second level:
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As the plays above suggest, the further Cann ventures away from the line of scrimmage, the less athletic he tends to look and play. Clearly more comfortable operating in a phone booth than in open space, the lineman needs better control of his momentum on the move in order to break down a target, gain proper positioning and square up to contact.
Some of these physical limitations can be alleviated by improved footwork and, more simply, better anticipation: For example, not moving directly toward the second level defender off the snap but instead taking a path to cut off the defender’s intended route to the ball carrier.
Comparable Player: Kevin Zeitler
While Cann may not sneak into the first round like Cincinnati Bengals offensive guard Kevin Zeitler did in the 2012 NFL Draft, he possesses many qualities similar to those of the three-year pro, both in terms of measurables and the ability to dominate the trenches in the running game.
A polished run blocker with plenty of experience, Cann displays all the traits necessary to slot into the starting lineup for most NFL teams from day one, particularly for a predominantly power run/man-blocking or inside zone scheme ‒ similar to what the Gamecocks ran under head coach Steve Spurrier. With some tweaks in his pass protection technique, the lineman has the potential to develop into an All-Pro-caliber player at the next level. One of the best pure guards available in the draft, Cann should be off the board by the middle of Day Two.
Follow Brian on Twitter @Brian_Filipiak.