Jason Cabinda’s journey in the NFL has been anything but conventional. Signed as an undrafted free agent by the (then) Oakland Raiders in 2018, Cabinda entered the league with the odds already stacked against him. As an undersized linebacker who didn’t have splashy athletic traits, it seemed like a special teams career was likely his ceiling.
But through every step of his journey, his spirit lent him a new chance. In his rookie year, he didn’t make the team, but he did make the Raiders’ practice squad, and showed enough to eventually get the call-up and even start three games at linebacker.
The next offseason, Cabinda had what he considered “a great camp” only to see his Raiders journey—which was heavily featured on “Hard Knocks”—come to an end with a somewhat surprising release. He wouldn’t let that be the end of his story.
“That constant journey,” Cabinda said on Thursday, “that constant fight and mentally dealing with that, feeling like you may be better than some others, feeling like you should be playing and you’re not, just having to keep your head down and just work, work and work, knowing that opportunity will come.”
That next opportunity came quickly, as the Lions signed Cabinda to their practice squad just a few days later. Cabinda came to Detroit expecting to contribute quickly, but, instead, he would end up spending the next 12 weeks on the practice squad, serving on the Lions’ scout team.
But, again, Cabinda wasn’t about to waste that opportunity. He may not have been taking true team reps, but he was going to make starter’s lives a living hell. There were not going to be any easy reps while he was out there.
“You ask any of those guys who were on the team that year, I used to go so, so hard on them on practice squad,” Cabinda said. “You were going to play me. There was no choice. I didn’t care. I came here just trying to prove myself, prove that I belong.”
He’s not lying, either. Former Lions guard Graham Glasgow specifically told MLive podcast “Dungeon of Doom” that Cabinda was one of the biggest thorns in the offensive line’s side in practice.
“They moved him to D-end, and he would absolutely toast (offensive tackle) Rick (Wagner) all the time,” Glasgow recently said. “And we would call him, like, Myles Watt or some shit like that. He was absolutely toasting us all the time for no reason.”
Lions coaches eventually noticed his attitude and grit, and threw him on special teams for the final four games of the season. The following year, they decided they didn’t see his future at linebacker. A week or two into the 2020 training camp, Detroit moved him to fullback—a place where his non-stop motor would be a natural fit.
It was another tough transition for Cabinda, and the constant shifting in the first three years of his NFL career was mentally taxing.
“I think not a lot of guys talk about mental health and kinda what that toll can be,” Cabinda said. “Being on practice squad and being cut, being released, not knowing what next year might look like.”
But like always, Cabinda adjusted, learned, and played with a relentless energy. And you know the minute head coach Dan Campbell walked in the door, that kind of attitude immediately endeared the fullback to him.
“I’ve been intrigued by Cabinda since the spring,” Campbell said just a couple weeks into training camp. “There’s something about him. We knew he was a little raw because he made that transition last year, but there is something to him.”
Cabinda’s 2021 season may not have been flashy, but he was a big reason the Lions were so successful in the running game, and he was an invaluable member of the Lions’ four special teams units—something the Raiders thought he lacked, causing them to release him. He, again, saw his role adapt and grow, as the Lions eventually shifted him to the tight end room, and even lined him up out wide at times.
All of that hard work paid off on the field, eventually culminating in a two-year deal he signed with the Lions this week. The moment clearly meant a lot to Cabinda.
“To be in a place where I can feel more stable, I can feel more focused on my position, growing and knowing exactly what’s expected of me and kind of what I need to focus on, is huge for me,” Cabinda said.
Of course, the work is not done for Cabinda. To him, in fact, it’s just starting. He’s going into 2022 clear—for the first time in his NFL career—of what is expected of him. And if you know Cabinda, you know the word “complacency” doesn’t belong in his dictionary.
“I really feel like I can be the best fullback in this league,” Cabinda said. “And kinda seeing what Kyle Juszczyk does for the 49ers and stuff like that, and watching his film and studying him and feeling like, ‘Man, I don’t think there’s anything that he does on the field that I can’t do.’”