In the depth of the 2021 NFL Draft‘s wide receiver class, potential gems could ultimately be buried. And in the face of a potentially altered offseason, those concerns are heightened. One of those potential gems at risk of being overlooked is FCS star, Cade Johnson. What does South Dakota State wide receiver Cade Johnson bring to the NFL Draft stage? What can he do to make himself known?
Cade Johnson NFL Draft Profile
- Position: Wide Receiver
- School: South Dakota State
- Current Year: Redshirt Senior
- Height: 5’10 3/8″
- Weight: 184 pounds
- Wingspan: 71 1/2″
- Arm: 29″
- Hand: 9 3/8″
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Tony Pauline’s Cade Johnson Scouting Report
Positives: Well-built receiver with solid pass-catching hands. Plays with outstanding balance and body control, looks the pass into his hands, and consistently makes the reception away from his frame. Quickly gets into breaks, adjusts to the errant throw, and makes the reception in stride.
Possesses eye/hand coordination as well as a sense of timing and soft hands. Tracks the pass in the air and displays focus as well as concentration. Effective returning kicks and productive running reverses.
Negatives: Lacks a second gear and elite burst. Finishes plays by lazily running out of bounds on occasion. Not a strong or sturdy receiver.
Analysis: Johnson was a solid small-school pass catcher who also produced as a return specialist as well as running reverses. He offers possibilities as a slot receiver/fifth wideout and punt returner at the next level.
Cade Johnson Player Profile
The FBS gets all the prestige. But below it, there’s a separate teeming world of football, reserved for those left behind. Cade Johnson was one of those prospects in 2016. A wide receiver out of Bellevue, Nebraska, Johnson was a zero-star recruit on most boards.
Johnson only had two offers, both at the FCS level. One came from South Dakota. The other from South Dakota State. Stuck with the small list of offers, Johnson ultimately chose the South Dakota State Jackrabbits as his college football destination. The Jackrabbits were a small school, but they’d made waves the previous year by toppling FBS opponent Kansas.
Cade Johnson’s career as a South Dakota State wide receiver
Johnson redshirted his first season with South Dakota State, using his year off to fill out his frame a bit and refine his technique. In 2017, Johnson saw his first playing time, but it wasn’t on offense. Instead, Johnson was the team’s primary kick returner. In that role, Johnson’s speed stole the show. The South Dakota State wide receiver logged 30 kick returns for 839 yards and two touchdowns.
By displaying his dynamic ability on the special teams unit, Johnson paved the way for his emergence on offense.
As a redshirt sophomore, Johnson joined the Jackrabbits’ starting lineup on offense. From there, the results were electric. Johnson amassed 67 catches for 1,332 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2018, averaging almost 20 yards per catch. In 2019, he reprised his role as the team’s chief playmaker, rolling to 1,222 yards and eight scores on 72 catches.
Unusual circumstances derail Johnson’s 2020 season
Johnson was scheduled to return for one more year as one of the most explosive playmakers in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. When the fall season was officially canceled, however, entering the transfer portal seemed to be the only way for Johnson to keep his options open.
After bypassing FBS opportunities, Johnson chose to declare for the 2021 NFL Draft in early November. Around the same time, he reserved a spot at the Senior Bowl. Johnson is eager, and he’ll get his opportunity soon enough to show off his talents to scouts.
Analyzing Cade Johnson’s NFL Draft profile
As his measurements imply, Case Johnson is a speedy guy. He gears up quickly off the line with his explosiveness. Down the field, he has the speed to separate and elongate space. Johnson’s speed is evidenced further by his returning experience. With his dynamic ability, he was a valued returner for the Jackrabbits, amassing almost 1,500 kick return yards in three seasons.
Johnson also couples his speed with solid elusiveness and lateral agility. Johnson can make defenders miss with his quickness, and he’s also fairly smooth running the ball. He can flow through congestion. In addition, he has the stop-and-start ability to evade tacklers and hit open space with good momentum.
What are the concerns with Cade Johnson?
Johnson is an enticing deep threat. However, he’s not a super well-rounded receiver outside of that. Johnson doesn’t have great contact balance, which limits his run-after-catch ability. He also doesn’t have the necessary size and length to extend for passes downfield. Johnson has good ball tracking ability as a deep threat. His short wingspan, however, inherently limits his catch radius.
Most of Johnson’s issues revolve around his size, but there’s also his competition to take into account. Johnson could have transferred to a Power Five school after entering the transfer portal in August. However, Johnson decided, in a calculated decision, not to make the leap. Logistically, it’s a challenge.
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Unfortunately, Johnson’s lack of experience against higher competition impacts his NFL Draft résumé. Johnson is a productive speed receiver with good dynamism and flashes of route crispness. But even in the FCS, he didn’t dominate with his traits. His speed, while very good, isn’t even in the elite tier. For a receiver that has size concerns and comes from the FCS, there’s bound to be some doubt in NFL circles.
Cade Johnson’s best fits in the 2021 NFL Draft
If there’s a silver lining for Johnson, it’s that he’s versatile. He’s also fast and competitive. Playing on special teams for all three seasons should certainly help his case. His utility as a run blocker should also help attract some teams. Displaying a willingness to block for his teammates, despite lacking in terms of length, can only benefit Johnson. For a prospect like Johnson, who’s on the fringe of the draft, little things like that will count.
It is tough to project definitively whether or not Johnson will be drafted. The 2021 NFL Draft is quite deep at wide receiver. Looking towards the end of the draft, small-school players with no 2020 tape may be flushed out. Johnson had a good Senior Bowl showing, but that alone won’t be enough, especially after his pro day performance.
At his pro day, Johnson logged a meager Relative Athletic Score of 3.06. He predictably tested with poor size, but his athletic traits didn’t do enough to compensate. He only ran a 4.51 in the 40-yard dash, and in explosiveness testing drills, he only managed a 35-inch vertical and a 114-inch broad jump. For a bigger receiver, those aren’t bad numbers. For Johnson, however, it stings a bit.
Do team fits matter for Johnson right now?
With no concrete round projection at this point, it’s hard to say where Johnson fits — or doesn’t fit, for that matter. NFL teams are allowed to have 90-man rosters for much of the offseason. With that in mind, teams tend to, and will likely continue to, stockpile wide receivers.
There’s a good chance the South Dakota State wide receiver will be a late selection on Day 3 as an explosive speed threat. A team looking for a late-round flyer could absolutely take a chance on Johnson. Nevertheless, even if he isn’t drafted, his pace and production should earn him a chance to lock down a 90-man roster spot at camp.
There’s a heightened degree of uncertainty surrounding players like Johnson. Yet, there’s also some definite appeal. FCS players have to persevere through countless obstacles to be considered as legitimate NFL Draft prospects. Even then, it often takes years of effort at the NFL level to carve out a role. Johnson has worked hard to get to this point. As long as the NFL remains his desired destination, he’s not going to stop.
In the words of Johnson himself, “if you love perfecting your craft and getting better every day, you’ll take the necessary steps.”
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