Could This Untested Tackle Replace Marcus Cannon For Patriots?

New England Patriots fans don’t know much about offensive tackle Yodny Cajuste as a player.

That’s OK. His teammates don’t either.

Since being selected in the third round of last year’s NFL draft, Cajuste has yet to even participate in a single practice for the Patriots. A pre-draft quad injury that was expected to sideline him for a few months wound up wiping out his entire rookie season, making him a near-total unknown as training camp 2020 kicks off at Gillette Stadium.

“Yod’s a great guy,” Patriots center and co-captain David Andrews said Sunday via video conference. “I’m excited to see him. Obviously, he hasn’t practiced, so you guys have seen about as much as I have.”

Despite that lack of experience, Cajuste could be asked to play a prominent — and unfamiliar — role in New England’s offense this season. The 24-year-old suddenly is one of the top candidates to start at right tackle following Marcus Cannon’s decision to opt out.

Of New England’s NFL-high eight player opt-outs to date, Cannon’s might be the most damaging given the team’s lack of proven depth behind him. As of Tuesday morning, the Patriots had just four offensive tackles on their 80-man roster: starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn, Korey Cunningham, Cajuste and Justin Herron.

Cunningham has some NFL experience — he started six games for Arizona in 2018 — but made just one appearance for the Patriots last season, sitting out nearly the entire year as a healthy scratch even while Marshall Newhouse struggled in place of an injured Wynn. Herron is a rookie sixth-round pick whom most draft analysts projected as an NFL guard.

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The Patriots almost certainly will fill at least one of their six vacant roster spots — created by their flurry of opt-outs — with another tackle, be it a familiar face like LaAdrian Waddle or Newhouse or a proven starter like Cordy Glenn or Demar Dotson. They also could look to shift Joe Thuney, a former college tackle, out of his left guard spot.

But of the current internal options, Cajuste has the most upside if he can bounce back physically.

Listed at 6-foot-5, 310 pounds, he was the Big 12’s Co-Offensive Lineman of the Year in 2018 and posted excellent pass-protection numbers at West Virginia, allowing just one sack and two quarterback hits over his final two collegiate seasons (840 pass-block snaps), per Pro Football Focus.

Most scouting reports classified Cajuste as a player who could start at the NFL level, and he likely would have gone much higher than 101st overall had he not gotten hurt a month before the draft.

Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller described him as “a smooth, fluid athlete with excellent movement upfield and laterally” who “looks like a future NFL starter at left tackle.” NFL Media’s Lance Zierlein wrote he had “starting tackle talent” and “physical ability to stay in front of NFL pass rushers” while pointing out some of his technical flaws.

The Athletic’s Dane Brugler, who pegged Cajuste as last year’s ninth-best tackle prospect, also harped on his inconsistent technique, as well as his occasional grabbiness (eight penalties in each of his last two seasons) and injury history (knee sprain in 2015, torn ACL in 2016, quad surgery last year), but wrote that “Cajuste has NFL starting potential if he eliminates the sloppy, undisciplined parts to his game.” PFF called him “one of college football’s most accomplished pass protectors.”

Cajuste’s player comparisons included Duane Brown and Jermon Bushrod, both longtime NFL starters.

So, the kid clearly has potential. But his profile also raises some concerns pertaining to this particular roster battle.

On top of the obvious injury-related questions, Cajuste only played left tackle in college, and he played just one year of high school football after switching over from basketball. He’s still relatively new to the sport and has no experience at the position the Patriots currently need to fill. And new offensive line coaches Carmen Bricillo and Cole Popovich won’t have much time to get him up to speed.

With the COVID-19 pandemic eliminating OTAs, minicamp and the preseason, players will have just 14 full-contact practices and a handful of non- or half-padded ones to prepare for Week 1. Even if Cajuste is in peak physical condition after his year off — he’s not on the physically unable to perform list, which is a good start — the learning curve he’ll face could be too steep to overcome in that narrow window.

We’ll be closely monitoring Cajuste’s progress once on-field Patriots practices begin Aug. 12.

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