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A.J. Cann overcame personal tragedy on his path to the NFL


On Oct 7, 2007, A.J. Cann's mother died after an extensive battle with throat cancer just four days after his 15th birthday. Although gone, she is certainly not forgotten, as Cann prepares to become the highest natural guard selected in the 2015 NFL draft. In her memory, Cann has coupled his strong on-field success with wonderful works of kindness off the field.

Entering his senior year at South Carolina, Cann and his teammates were given one week off the entire summer. Rather than relaxing at home or trekking on a personal vacation, the All-American and his quarterback Dylan Thompson raised money and traveled to Israel, with the goal of teaching their beloved sport to those less fortunate.

"We did six camps in six days," said Gamecock quarterback Dylan Thompson. "We got about four or five hours of sleep at night. It was nonstop"

Cann's visit to the Middle East paid large dividends not only for the people he taught, but also for himself.

"I think it helped me a lot," said Cann. "Just knowing how much they love the game even though they've only played it a couple years. That made me think about the opportunity I've had and how blessed I am to play this game each and every day and how close I am to the opportunity I have now."

In light of NFL player discipline issues, the league and its teams may hold strong character in higher regard than in the past. The four-year starter believes his personal makeup has helped him become a great teammate.

"I think maybe character speaks for itself," said Cann. "Off the field, as a player, you can trust me. You ask guys back at South Carolina, they never had a problem with me of any issue at all. I think I'm one of those guys you would never have a problem with."

The African-American studies graduate was also a three-time SEC academic honor roll honoree.

On the field, Cann has a strong résumé as well, matching up well against SEC opponents on a weekly basis. His experience and measurables suggest that the 6-3, 310-pound lineman is NFL ready. NFL media draft analyst Lance Zierlein suggests that Cann is a sound investment for any team seeking interior line help.

"He has technique issues that need to be coached up in pass protection, but he also has the talent to improve in that area," Zierlein wrote. "Powerful drive-blocker who uses leverage to fire out and generate instant movement in tight spaces. He is best-suited to a power scheme. Cann has the plug-and-play traits that could make him an instant starter."

As the draft approaches, many analysts favor the potential of collegiate tackles such as Brandon Scherff of Iowa and La'el Collins of LSU over Cann, suggesting they can make the transition to guard. The South Carolina native believes his four years of collegiate experience at the guard position will give him an edge both in the draft and early in his NFL career.

"I hope that would benefit me," said Cann. "Guys looking at film and seeing that I played four years at guard and consistently played pretty good football, I hope that'll benefit me when it comes to picking someone to play the guard position."

How can he fit the Bills?

In 2014, Buffalo failed to average more than 100 rushing yards per game for the first time since 2006. The 25th ranked rushing attack struggled with injuries and inconsistent offensive line play just one year after having the NFL's second best rushing attack. The new coaching staff coupled with the addition of Lesean McCoy, has Bills fans excited about what could be a dominant rushing attack in 2015. Throughout Greg Roman's tenure as offensive coordinator in San Francisco, the 49ers averaged nearly 31 carries per game (30.7), the third-highest across the league over the four year period.

In order to run the ball effectively, GM Doug Whaley and the personnel department know that improvements must be made to the offensive line. Established guard Richie Incognito signed with the Bills in February and hopes to improve a unit that finished 32nd in run blocking according to Pro Football Focus. Incognito was a Pro Bowl guard in 2012 and was playing his best football before his release from the Dolphins in 2013. While the addition of Incognito helps, Buffalo is likely to continue to improve the interior of their offensive line in the NFL draft. If available at pick number 50, Cann could be an intriguing option.

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