With one month to go until they are scheduled to report to training camp, the New England Patriots currently have the league-allowed maximum of 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.
Today, the series continues with one of New England’s second-year players.
Name: Yodny Cajuste
Position: Offensive tackle
Jersey number: 63
Opening day age: 24
Size: 6-foot-5, 310 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 UFA)
What is his experience? Cajuste arrived in the NFL as a third-round draft pick by the Patriots last year. While he was forced to spend his entire rookie campaign on the sidelines, he does have plenty of experience entering his second year as a pro: not only did he spend one year as part of New England’s organization — participating in behind-the-scenes study and rehabilitation work off the field — he also saw considerable playing time during his five-year stint at West Virginia University between 2014 and 2018.
After redshirting during his true freshman season, Cajuste earned the Mountaineers’ starting left tackle job the following year. Injuries in both 2015 (knee) and 2016 (torn ACL) limited him to just eight in-game appearances over those two seasons, but he bounced back strongly by starting the final 23 straight games of his college career. Along the way, he was named to two All-Big 12 teams and recognized as a second-team All-American after not surrendering a sack during his senior campaign.
What did his 2019 season look like? Coming off the best season of his career, Cajuste decided to try his luck in the NFL instead of staying at West Virginia for another year. His pre-draft process, however, was marked by a quad injury that severely limited him during his combine and pro day workouts and eventually forced him to undergo surgery in March. While the Patriots still selected him 101st overall despite the procedure, he was unable to participate in the team’s offseason workout program after being drafted.
Cajuste’s status did also not change as New England kicked off its training camp in late July: the rookie was placed on the non-football injury list as part of his rehabilitation process, and unable to participate in practice. With his process apparently not a point at which he could return to the field just yet, the team decided to keep Cajuste on the NFI list into the regular season. He would have been eligible to return after a six-week absence, but the team opted against this course of action by shutting him down for good.
Cajuste’s first year in the NFL therefore ended with him being unable to participate in even a single practice session let alone one of the Patriots’ games.
What is his projected role? Even though Cajuste missed all of 2019, he might play a prominent role along New England’s offensive line next season. He is the frontrunner to earn the team’s top swing/backup role at offensive tackle, after all, and there even is a small chance that he advances to the starting lineup in case moves are made atop the depth chart or he is able of beating out veteran Marcus Cannon at right tackle. From the current perspective, however, such a turn of events does seem unlikely: Cajuste is projected to serve as the Patriots’ number three tackle in 2020.
What is his special teams value? With the exception of starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn, the Patriots used all their players at the position in the kicking game as well in 2019. Despite his recent injury issues — similar to what Wynn experienced — Cajuste does not project to be treated any differently this year: he should see regular action as an up-front blocker on field goal and extra point attempts, possibly filling the spot on the left side of the line if the coaching staff once more opts against using Wynn in that role.
Does he have positional versatility? Cajuste played exclusively at the left tackle position at West Virginia, but the team will likely ask him to take on a more diverse role if he wants to win the number three gig behind Wynn and Cannon. Realistically, his versatility does not extend far beyond the swing tackle role: he only started playing the position during his senior year at high school and was still growing into it in college. The Patriots adding increased responsibilities to his plate would therefore be a surprise, especially with him coming off a year-long stint on the sidelines.
What is his salary cap situation? Cajuste signed a standard four-year contract with the Patriots shortly after they selected him in the third round of the draft. As part of the deal, he will be on the team’s books with a salary cap number of $840,545. While only his signing bonus proration of $205,545 is guaranteed, his cap hit is still reasonable for a player who could see regular playing time as the first backup at the offensive tackle position.
What is his roster outlook? Just like last year, Cajuste’s roster outlook is closely tied to his health. The expectation is that he will be back on the practice fields once training camp opens in late July, but any setbacks or him developing slower than anticipated could lead to the Patriots’ new offensive line coaches to reconsider his role and instead give the number three job to the more experienced Korey Cunningham. Based on his upside and athletic skillset, however, Cajuste should be able to beat out his competition and eventually win the job this year — possibly positioning himself for an even bigger role in 2021.