With training camp underway, the New England Patriots are fully “on to 2021.”
The team currently has 91 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in August and September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we are taking a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.
Today, the series continues with offensive tackle Yodny Cajuste.
Name: Yodny Cajuste
Position: Offensive tackle
Jersey number: 72
Opening day age: 25
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 in 2019, but has yet to appear in a game at the professional level so far: he missed his first two years in the league due to injury. Nonetheless, Cajuste does have some experience. Not only did he spend two years as part of the New England organization — participating primarily in behind-the-scenes study and rehabilitation work — he also saw considerable playing time during his time at West Virginia 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 in impressive fashion by starting the final 23 straight games of his collegiate 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 2020 season look like? After having to sit out his entire 2019 rookie season following offseason surgery on an injured quad, Cajuste’s second year in the league was also off to a rocky start. With the Coronavirus pandemic forcing teams to cancel offseason workouts, the youngster did not make his practice debut until the start of training camp. But even when he did take the field, Cajuste found himself behind Jermaine Eluemunor and Michael Onwenu in the competition for the starting right tackle position.
Nevertheless, the Patriots kept him on their 53-man roster through early-September’s cutdown deadline. Unfortunately, he was again bitten by the injury bug: Cajuste missed back-to-back practices due to a knee injury and before the first game of the season was sent to injured reserve. While he would have been eligible to return after three weeks, New England decided to keep the second-year man sidelined for the remainder of the season. Cajuste’s 2020 was therefore as disappointing as his 2019 campaign.
What is his projected role? With Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown locked into the starting spots at offensive tackle, Cajuste is projected to compete for the third/swing role over the course of training camp and preseason. He is the longest-tenured option currently under contract, but his injury history and lack of on-field experience is concerning — especially compared to other players at the position such as Justin Herron and Korey Cunningham.
What is his special teams value? With the exception of center David Andrews, the Patriots used all their offensive linemen in the kicking game as well during the 2020 season. Despite his recent injury issues, Cajuste does not project to be treated any differently if he is able to make the field this year: he should see regular action as a protector on field goal and extra point attempts, possibly filling an edge spot on either the left or the right side of the formation.
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 Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown. 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 given his significant injury history.
What is his salary cap situation? Entering the third season of the four-year rookie contract he signed upon arriving in New England back in 2019, Cajuste is on the Patriots’ books with a salary cap number of $205,545 — his fully-guaranteed signing bonus proration for 2021 — under the NFL’s Top-51 rule. If he makes the 53-man roster, however, his $720,000 non-guaranteed salary will be added to the equation to give him an in-season cap hit of $925,545.
What is his roster outlook? Cajuste has the talent to earn the No. 3 role at the offensive tackle position this summer, but until he starts putting it all together it would not be a surprise if he found himself on the outside looking in when all is said and done. Justin Herron, after all, appears to be the frontrunner to earn the third spot on the depth chart, and it remains to be seen if the Patriots are willing to go four-deep on their active team. If they do so, Cajuste is a realistic candidate. But even if he fails to make the initial cut, the team could try to sneak him onto its practice squad. Either way, he appears to be a in a make-or-break situation.