2021 NFL draft prospects: South Dakota State WR Cade Johnson

Eric Edholm
·5 min read
Eric Edholm's criteria for grading NFL draft prospects. (Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)
Eric Edholm's criteria for grading NFL draft prospects. (Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)

South Dakota State WR Cade Johnson

5-foot-10, 186 pounds

Yahoo Sports draft grade: 5.80 — potential starter

TL;DR scouting report: Small-school big-play threat who reminded everyone of his game-changing talent at the Senior Bowl following his missed 2020 season

Games watched: Minnesota (2019), Southern Illinois (2019), Illinois State (2019), Senior Bowl (2021)

The skinny: Despite having been named to the all-Nebraska team as a senior less than an hour away from Lincoln, Johnson was a 0-star Rivals recruit. His only two scholarship offers: South Dakota and South Dakota State. Johnson became a Jackrabbit and redshirted his freshman season before breaking out in 2017 with 23 receptions for 318 yards and three touchdowns and 30 kickoff returns for a school-record 839 yards and two TDs in 14 games.

In 2018, he caught 17 TD passes on his 67 receptions for 1,332 yards and averaged 27.2 yards per kickoff in 13 contests, earning first team All-MVFC mention. Johnson once more earned first team All-MVFC in 2019 and was named first-team AP All-America, catching 72 passes for 1,222 yards and eight scores, rushing eight times for 149 yards and averaging 21.7 yards on nine kickoffs. When the 2020 FBS season was cancelled Johnson originally entered the transfer portal in order to transfer to a Power 5 school for his final season, but he ultimately declared for the 2021 NFL draft. Johnson also attended the 2021 Senior Bowl.

Upside: Quick and sudden receiver with game-breaking ability. Registered plays of 80-plus yards in each of his three seasons. Caught 14 passes with 20-plus “air yards” in his career. Averaged 17.7 yards per catch, 15.2 per rush and 26.7 per kickoff. Great YAC skill. Three-level receiving weapon.

Got vertical often in college — not just a shifty underneath slot receiver. Springy burst off the line and gets up to top speed in a hurry. Gains great acceleration and varies his route speeds to keep DBs a step behind — will lull them to sleep and burst to get open.

Nearly uncoverable in Senior Bowl one-on-ones — when he wasn’t shaking free defenders, he was making contested grabs and/or tiptoeing the sideline. Footwork and route running looked even crisper and sharper there than in 2019 tape. Showed absolutely zero rust in practices during the week despite not playing a game in more than a year.

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Plays bigger than his size — tough and holds up well through contact downfield. Uses a variety of different moves on his releases. Will work the middle of the field unfazed by lurking safeties. Competes for the ball at the catch point. Displayed improved hands in 2019 season and at the Senior Bowl. Bigger-than-expected hand size (9 3/8 inches).

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Had a fantastic game in near-upset of Minnesota in 2019 — six catches for 90 yards (with two catches at the 1-yard line) and a 25-yard run. Kickoff skill adds value — natural returner who can house one now and then and routinely gain good field position. Experience operating in cold, windy conditions.

Downside: Size a limiting factor — below-average height and weight and very short wingspan (71 1/2 inches) and arm length (29" inches). No real catch radius to speak of, so separation will be even more crucial at the next level. Lean frame and limited capacity to add bulk.

Could struggle to battle longer-framed corners with anything but quickness and burst and might be relegated to a slot-only role. Might never be a WR1 for an NFL team.

A bit of a bobber and weaver on his routes — can round them off a bit at times. Might not have a rare top gear. Fast but not elite, NFL-level play speed. Doesn’t always gain ideal separation, especially on more linear routes. Seldom faced press coverage.

Lost a year of development when the 2020 season was cancelled — missed out on chance to put more quality tape out, especially in matchup against Nebraska. Only a handful of matchups against NFL-caliber talent.

Received mostly mid-Day 3 summer grades prior to cancelled season. Rhode Island’s Isaiah Coulter was the only FCS wide receiver drafted in 2020 after pro days were cancelled (and Coulter had the benefit of an NFL combine appearance).

Will be an older rookie — turns 23 years old in April. Dropped seven passes on 113 targets in 2018, per Pro Football Focus. Played more than 80 percent of his college snaps in the slot.

Best-suited destination: An ideal third receiver, Johnson profiles as an inside target who can threaten the seam deep and also do ample work close to the line of scrimmage on screens, slants, end-arounds and jet sweeps. Teams such as the Minnesota Vikings, Cleveland Browns, New York Giants, New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins, Detroit Lions, New Orleans Saints and others should be highly interested.

Did you know: Johnson’s father, Clester, played at Nebraska and was a member of the program's 1994 and 1995 national championship teams. His older brother, C.J., played wide receiver at Wyoming (before a career-ending injury), and his younger brother, Keagan, plays wideout at Iowa.

Clester Johnson said that Nebraska never came calling for Cade in recruiting. “(Former Huskers head coach) Mike Riley was not looking at him,” the elder Johnson told The Athletic. “They didn’t take Cade seriously.”

Player comp: We might be nuts here, but Johnson gives us some (poor man’s) Tyler Lockett vibes. It’s a big comp, and Johnson isn’t going to be there in Year 1, but … he’s really, really fascinating. Another name we came up with: Deion Branch.

Expected draft range: Rounds 3-5