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UVA Football: What Former Cavalier Will Have the Best Rookie Season in 2012?

Ben GibsonSenior Analyst IJanuary 8, 2017

UVA Football: What Former Cavalier Will Have the Best Rookie Season in 2012?

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    Virginia football had a resurgence in 2011, making their first bowl game since 2007 and doing it around a corps of young players.

    The veterans were sent off on a high note, dealing with tumultuous seasons in the past but learning from them and gaining valuable experience.

    Those memories could prove vital in the months to come.

    For even in Virginia's weakest moments, the Cavaliers have been able to produce NFL talent.

    Defensive lineman Chris Long, offensive linemen D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Brandon Albert, Eugene Monroe, quarterback Matt Schaub and countless more Cavaliers little the NFL sidelines.

    So when only one name was called in the 2012 NFL Draft from Charlottesville, players knew the challenge that would await them.

    The former Cavalier NFL rookies have perhaps the most difficult road to Sundays than any graduating class in recent memory.

    Still, if any groups of guys has the mental toughness and determination to handle it, these would be the ones.

    So let us take a look at those players most likely to breakthrough and have an impact on the NFL next season.

9. Aaron Taliaferro

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    While Taliaferro is a versatile defensive player with a strong work ethic, his 40-time of over five seconds will be the albatross to hang on his neck for all offseason.

    Linebackers, no matter where they are on the field, cannot expect to make an NFL roster if they lack speed.

    It may be a thankless position but it is one of the most important. Versatility requires more than just brains and talent, it requires speed and strength.

    Taliaferro overachieved a bit at Virginia, even though he had to deal with scheme changes and new faces throughout his time there.

    Still, to be able to crack an NFL roster will be exceedingly difficult at the position he wants. While it is hard to count out a guy once nicknamed "Lazarus" by his coaching staff, Taliaferro has a very difficult road to climb.

8. Corey Mosley

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    Corey Mosley will have a very tough time making an NFL roster.

    While he provided some big hits and memorable moments for Cavalier fans, Mosley never really had the size or athleticism to hang with some of the better college wide receivers.

    If that was a problem in college, you can imagine the problem it would be in the NFL.

    The phone does not seem to be ringing, at least according to any official NFL sources. Mosley will probably get an opportunity in tryouts, but he has to accept the fact that if he has an NFL future it will be on special teams.

    There, he can use his speed and hard-hitting to the best of his abilities and make an impact that way. The NFL always need strong players for that and injuries could help him get an opportunity.

    Still, Mosley's chances are not as promising as we would all like.

7. Anthony Mihota

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    It takes a certain something to be a center. You have to have a rapport with the quarterback and really time the offense accordingly.

    Last season, Mihota was not given enough credit for that. He was someone that had to work with a quarterback rotation that frustrated everyone.

    He led a line that made Virginia one of the better rushing attacks around.

    Still, without an NFL-size body, Mihota was not drafted. It was not really a surprise, his combine numbers were okay, nothing spectacular but his biggest strengths are just the little things he does as a leader.

    It is hard to use those abilities though unless you are going to be the starting center and that just may not be in the cards.

    Mihota had a tryout with the Bears last month, but he may have to sit around and let injuries give him the opportunity to make an NFL roster. If he does, I think he has the chance to stick but getting through that door is going to be quite the challenge for him.

6. Rodney McLeod

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    We all remember Rodney McLeod's shining moment in 2011 when he picked off three passes against the Maryland Terrapins in Virginia's march towards redemption.

    Now, while all of the picks were impressive, they were not always smart. For instance, an interception on fourth down that cost your team 25 yards may look nice on the highlight reel but it does not help your team.

    McLeod has talent, but he will be unable to get away with some of the mistakes that plagued him at Virginia. Despite his hard-hitting ability, the Cavalier secondary was vulnerable to big plays because of misreading offenses.

    When you are fighting for the roster, big plays can get you on the team but a gaffe could keep you on the sidelines forever.

    Therefore, McLeod has to study the game as much as he to train his body this offseason.  

    With three rookie candidates heading into the Rams training camp as options, McLeod has to make sure he can prove he's coachable as well as explosive. Duke safety Matt Daniels may be the favorite, but safety is one position where St. Louis has major question marks.

    McLeod could surprise people and make it on the team, but it will be an uphill climb. Hopefully he can make the most of his opportunity though and use it as experience down the road.

5. Kris Burd

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    As a wide receiver, Burd was one of the more reliable options on the field.

    Always able to pull down an errant pass and a good route-runner, Burd helped lead a young unit of receivers and bolster a once meager passing game in 2011.

    However, his reliability was overlooked though when a collarbone injury cost him most of the offseason to try and impress scouts.

    Burd is a very good player, but he does not necessarily excel in any one category. He does not have the NFL speed to be a home run option. His injury may worry others that he can be an across the middle receiver either.

    Still, Burd is intelligent and strong. His determination could help him make an NFL roster.

    Burd signed with the New York Jets, a team where he will need to display good catching ability considering who the passers are. More than likely, Burd will have to excel at being tough and being able to block and play special teams as well.

    With those factors being considered though, Burd would make a good versatile player and has a chance to be playing on Sundays this fall.

4. Matt Conrath

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    Matt Conrath may not have been drafted this year, but he was rewarded with an opportunity to play for the St. Louis Rams, alongside 22 other unsigned players.

    Conrath was a stalwart on the defensive line at Virginia, playing in 47 games and starting in all but one of them.

    With 64 tackles his senior season, the big man earned All-ACC honors and really helped turnaround a defensive laughingstock in 2010.

    Twice he was named ACC Defensive lineman of the week and really spearheaded Virginia to two important victories over Georgia Tech and Duke.

    Conrath also had an impact on special teams, blocking three kicks and showing his big play ability to NFL scouts.

    The Rams have struggled in the past few years defensively but appear to be turning things around with a crop of talent including former Cavalier Chris Long.

    With a new coach and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams suspended for Bounty-Gate, just about anything could happen with the Rams. Expect everyone to get a fair shake and therefore Conrath could earn some playing time on special teams and dime packages.

3. Austin Pasztor

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    Austin Pasztor is used to shouldering an early load.

    Starting as a freshman, Pasztor has had to protect the quarterback in anemic offenses and desperately try to block for running backs that could not burst through for years.

    Last year though, Pasztor and his experienced teammates had one of the best offensive lines in the conference and the Virginia offense was finally respectable once more. 

    So it stands to reason that Pasztor would be a viable NFL product and yet, despite being a first team All-ACC selection, his name was not called on Draft weekend.

    Pasztor is currently trying out with the Minnesota Vikings but must compete with two other draft picks on the line and two other returning starters at his projected position. The odds are certainly not as bright as some might have expected for him.

    On the other hand, the Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL drafted Canadian-born Pasztor in their draft, leaving the young man with quite the decision.

    If Pasztor holds on to a roster spot, he will play well and may eventually get himself into the starting rotation. He has the talent to be an NFL player but, judging by his current circumstances, he may have to wait his turn.

2. Cam Johnson

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    Many expected Johnson to be drafted higher than his seventh round position in the 2012 NFL Draft, yet the San Francisco 49ers are the happy benefactors of the slide.

    Johnson is a player with talent and potential, look no further than his game-winning sack-force fumble against Indiana that jump started the 2011 season. His four sacks were the best on the team and his 11 tackles for loss were second best for any Cavalier last season.

    Yet there are some who wonder if Johnson has the all-around game to be a big factor in the NFL. After all, despite the big transitions in defense over his four years, Johnson never produced big All-ACC caliber statistics.

    The 49ers are a team that wants to win games with their stout defense and Johnson's pass rush makes him a valued commodity. However, the depth of the position and his rookie status will probably relegate him to a third-and-long player.

    Worse yet, a knee injury and subsequent surgery may limit his practice time heading into training camp.

    If he makes some big plays though, he can earn more playing time down the road.

1. Chase Minnifield

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    Heading into 2011, no one would have expected Chase Minnifield to not be drafted.

    In fact, few would have expected him out of the first two or three rounds.

    The cornerback had another outstanding season, earning All-ACC honors, but finished the season hobbled by a knee injury. His surgery cost him many combines and scouting opportunities and, as a result, his stock draft continued to plummet.

    Add in the fact that it was the infamous Dr. James Andrews doing the microfracture surgery and Minnifield's ticket to the NFL looked more like a ticket on the Titanic.

    If Minnifield is going to play on an NFL team, he is going to have to earn it the old-fashioned way. The Redskins appear to be the most likely candidate and a target for the former Cavalier.

    If he does make it to the roster, he will have followed in the footsteps of his father, Frank. Before Minnifield became a star on the Cleveland Browns, he had to earn a spot on the Louisville Cardinal roster by walking on to the team.

    Chase looks to be following his father in more ways than one. While his success depends on his health, all reports are that the surgery went well and the Redskins are a team desperate in need of help at the secondary position.

    If Minnifield gets on the roster, he is a dangerous player, but he will have a long road to climb.

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