In 2019, the New England Patriots invested a third-round draft pick in Yodny Cajuste. Later, they had to invest a lot of patience in him as well.
Coming off a five-year career at West Virginia, Cajuste entered the 2019 draft with serious potential but questions about his durability. Injuries in both 2015 (knee) and 2016 (torn ACL) limited him to just eight in-game appearances over those two seasons. He later started the final 23 games of his college career, but was unable to carry that momentum into the NFL.
Cajuste had to sit out most drills at the Scouting Combine because of a quad issue that later required surgery. Not only did he miss all of New England’s offseason workout program that year, he eventually spent his entire rookie season on the non-football injury list.
Things did not go much better the following year. While Cajuste took the practice fields in training camp and made it through roster cutdowns, he suffered a knee injury and was sent to injured reserve before the season opener. He would have been eligible to return after three weeks, but New England decided to keep him sidelined for the rest of the season.
In case you’ve lost track: two NFL seasons, zero games.
He did return to the field the following year to play the first 81 snaps of his professional career, but the injury bug continued to bite him. Cajuste missed time due to a hamstring injury early during the 2021 season and later had to spend two weeks on the Coronavirus reserve list as well. He appeared in seven games but failed to prove himself as anything more than a second- or third-string player.
Fast forward to August 2022, and you see a player who is in the middle of his best training camp to date. Don’t take it from us either, take it from a man who knows football better than literally anybody else.
“This is the best camp he’s had,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said last week. “He’s been very competitive and worked hard in the offseason and is in good condition. We’ll see how things turn out here, but it’s good to have him back out there.”
Cajuste is not only healthy, he also has started to show what the Patriots saw in him three years ago. Serving as a stand-in right tackle in place of injured starter Isaiah Wynn, the 6-foot-5, 310-pound lineman has impressed in both practice and the lone preseason contest thus far.
While the starting spots at offensive tackle appear to be in the hands of Trent Brown on the left side and Isaiah Wynn on the right, Cajuste appears to be on track to earn the OT3 role behind them. Depending on the severity of Wynn’s injury — he has now missed five straight practices — the 26-year-old might be called upon to start at one point; he is likely to take the field with the top unit for Friday’s preseason game against the Carolina Panthers.
Regardless of his spot on the depth chart, though, just being out there is a positive development for Cajuste.
“It’s definitely a blessing. I don’t take it for granted,” he told reporters earlier this week. “I’m excited and blessed to be out there every single day. The past is the past. I’m out here now, so I don’t even look back. I just look forward and try to improve each and every day. … You have to cherish each and every moment that you’re able to strap it up and be out there.”
Along the way, Cajuste has developed a forward-looking mentality.
“For sure it’s frustrating, but it’s in the past now,” he said about the injury issues that nearly derailed his career. “You can’t look back. You have to look at the present, today and tomorrow. I’m out here now, I just have to make the most of my opportunities.”
Four weeks into training camp it appears that Cajuste has done just that. While he entered the summer as one of several backup offensive tackles on the roster, he has emerged among them.
Injuries suffered by Justin Herron and Yasir Durant played their part, sure, but Cajuste himself has also performed at a high level. Just ask Belichick. Of course, the man in question is not focused on his head coach’s praise.
“I’m just trying to get better each and every day. I’m just trying to improve,” Cajuste said. “It’s just a statement. I have to go out and prove myself every single day.”