Coming off the best season of his career, Yodny 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 eventually forced him to undergo surgery in March. While the New England Patriots still selected him with the 101st overall pick despite the procedure, his rehabilitation forced him and the team to adapt their plans for his rookie campaign.
After sitting out the Patriots’ spring practices, Cajuste was placed on the non-football injury list before the 2019 training camp. With his recovery 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 New England opted against this course of action by shutting him down for good.
Now entering his second year in the league, Cajuste’s outlook has changed quite a bit. Not only does he appear to be back at full strength now, he also is in the running for a starting job at right tackle after veteran Marcus Cannon decided to opt out. Whether or not he ultimately earns it during training camp remains to be seen, but the man who would play next to him in the lineup did have some positive words to say about the 24-year-old.
“Very excited about him and all of our guys. I’m excited to see what Yodny can do out there,” Patriots right guard Shaq Mason said about the second-year man during a media conference call earlier this week. “He came in and he’s been hurt, but he’s been paying attention, been hands-on and he’s looking ready. Along with the other guys, we’re looking forward to seeing all of them compete.”
Over the last two days, Cajuste participated in his first full-team practices since turning pro as one of the players lining up in the vacant right tackle spot. While the sessions themselves were rather low in terms of offensive line intensity — full contact will not be permitted until next week — him getting back to the field is certainly a positive sign when it comes to his development after a year spent on the sidelines.
Cajuste, of course, is not the only young blocker to return after a prolonged absence: fellow second-year man Hjalte Froholdt, a fourth-round guard who missed all of last year because of a shoulder injury suffered in preseason, also made his return to the field this week. Mason, who himself is in his sixth training camp with the Patriots, sounded confident in their progression and potential to contribute to the team.
“It’s great to have them back,” he said after Wednesday’s practice. “The young guys, they’re getting up to speed, they’re all inquisitive and asking a lot of questions. That’s what it is about in the trenches, asking questions and getting all the information you can as quickly as you can. I think those guys are doing a good job of that.”
In order to get up to speed, Mason knows that he also carries a responsibility. Not only is he one of the starters — left tackle Isaiah Wynn, left guard Joe Thuney and center David Andrews are also secure in their positions — he also is the longest-tenured member of the Patriots’ offensive line. His role in combination with his experience therefore makes him a natural leader of the young group surrounding him and the other starting linemen.
“We taught all those guys: lean on us,” said Mason about the hierarchy within the O-line room. “We’ll bring everybody up to speed, and we’re counting on them just like they are counting on us. I think the biggest thing with us four is just holding each one accountable, and that’s what we’ve been doing — bringing the other guys along as we’re progressing as well.”
As for Cajuste, his progression can now finally go beyond recovery and into actually showing the Patriots that their third-round investment was a sound one. In order to do that, he will have to stand his ground against the other players vying for Marcus Cannon’s old job: 2019 trade acquisitions Korey Cunningham and Jermaine Eluemunor, and rookie Justin Herron are also competing for the vacant starting spot at right tackle.