COLUMBIA — He doesn’t know the team, he doesn’t know the round. But A.J. Cann is fairly certain of how he’ll react when he hears his name called during the NFL Draft.
“There might be some tears of joy,” said the South Carolina offensive guard. “I’ll be happy. It’s something every kid dreams about, and it’s something I definitely dreamed about, and I can’t wait for it to come.”
That time has arrived for Cann and two other Gamecocks — offensive tackle Corey Robinson and tailback Mike Davis — likely to have their names called during the NFL Draft, which opens Thursday in Chicago. Robinson is projected as a middle-round selection, while Davis could last until the final rounds. But the first to go will be Cann, a Bamberg native who started 51 career games at USC and finished as a second-team All-American.
Late last year, Cann seemed like a potential first-rounder — a mock draft released by ESPN’s Todd McShay in November had the 6-4, 311-pounder going with the 31st overall pick. But after an evaluation period consisting of the NFL Combine and various pro days, the consensus among analysts is that Cann will go in the second round, with a chance of being taken in the first — or falling to the third.
NFL Network’s Mike Mayock ranks Cann the fourth-best interior offensive linemen in a draft where tackles are more prized. Critics will argue that Cann’s pass-blocking will need some fine-tuning in the NFL, while his lack of versatility as a lineman who plays just the guard position could been seen as a detriment. Others view his reliable presence at USC as an indication that he could vie for an NFL starting job right away.
“In terms of pure guards, he’s No. 1,” said ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. “I think he’s a second-rounder, maybe Round 1 if that’s what you want.”
Cann’s draft stock may have dipped among analysts because of a left calf strain which impacted his workouts at the NFL Combine and USC’s pro day. But after meeting with team scouts, Cann seemed reassured that the injury was a non-factor. “Most of them told me it was no biggie,” he said. “I’ve got plenty of film. They all know I’m a great player. They’re not worried about anything.”
Robinson, at 6-8 and 344 pounds, is valued for his size but can have trouble with speedy defensive ends, one reason most analysts see him as a mid-round prospect. Davis left USC after an injury-plagued junior season that saw him fall 18 yards short of back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns, and entered a draft deep with elite backs. Kiper ranks Davis the 12th-best tailback, and sees him going anywhere from the fourth to the seventh rounds.
“I’ve seen backs like that drop significantly because they kind of get lost in the shuffle,” Kiper said. “Nobody prioritizes running back in this draft. Only one or two teams have it as a top-three need area.”
With so many top running backs available — Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Wisconsin’s Melvin Ingram head the list — some will naturally be pushed down into the later rounds. Many analysts believe one of them will be the 5-9, 220-pound Davis, who for his part has tuned out the prognostication.
“I don’t follow any of it,” he said. “I don’t really care what people have to say about me. All I’m worried about it getting drafted and making a team. That’s the main goal.”
A few other Gamecocks could be drafted late. Defensive tackle J.T. Surratt and tight end Rory Anderson also attended the NFL Combine, though Anderson couldn’t work out due to the triceps injury which ended his senior season. Receiver Damiere Byrd raised some eyebrows with an unofficial 40-yard time of 4.25 seconds at USC’s pro day. And quarterback Dylan Thompson is among those who will likely try to earn a training camp invitation as an undrafted free agent.
But it will start with Cann, who if he doesn’t hear his name called in the opening round Thursday night, will surely go Friday when the second and third rounds are conducted.
“You hear all kinds of things — first round, second round,” Cann said. “But I’m going to get drafted. That’s the biggest thing. I’ll be happy wherever I go.”