The NFL Draft is 98 days away. It’s time to start the Unpacking Future Packers countdown. A countdown where we will take a look at prospects that could be targeted by the Green Bay Packers in the 2021 NFL Draft. Starting with number 77 on the list, South Dakota State University wide receiver, Cade Johnson.
Cade Johnson was not highly recruited coming out of Bellevue West High School located in Bellevue, Neb. According to Rivals.com, Johnson received offers from South Dakota State University and the University of South Dakota. All the other Division I schools in the area missed out on a gem.
“Cade had an amazing career,” SDSU passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach Luke Schleusner said. “He wasn’t a guy that was heavily recruited out of high school. When he came here his freshman year he struggled a little bit. He redshirted and he showed some flashes. He really matured on the field and in the weight room. He worked incredibly hard.”
As a redshirt freshman for the Jackrabbits, Johnson caught 23 passes for 318 yards and three touchdowns.
That season Johnson made his living on special teams, proving to be a dynamic return man for SDSU. He set the single-season program record for kick return yards (839). Johnson averaged 28 yards per kick return and finished the season with two kick return touchdowns.
“His freshman year he was a great kick returner for us,” Schleusner said. “He had two kick return touchdowns for us. He really started to emerge as a big-play guy. At the time we had Dallas Goedert and Jake Wieneke and we didn’t ask as much of him on offense.”
In 2018, Goedert was selected in the second round by the Philadelphia Eagles and Wieneke was signed by the Minnesota Vikings as an undrafted free agent. Those two departures left the door open for Johnson to become the man in Brookings. The Nebraska native did not disappoint.
In 2018, Johnson caught 67 passes for 1,332 yards and set the single-season program record for receiving touchdowns (17). He continued to provide special teams value, averaging 27.2 yards on kick returns.
As a redshirt junior in 2019, Johnson reeled in 72 receptions for 1,222 yards and eight touchdowns.
“His sophomore year he really just exploded,” Schleusner said. “He went from the number three or number four receiver on our team to one of the best receivers in the country. His sophomore and junior years were really just outstanding.”
The first thing that jumps out when you watch Johnson is his ability after the catch. He just has a knack for making the first guy whiff, leaving them grasping at air as he turns a seven-yard out into a 20-plus yard gain.
“With Cade, we always kind of count on it that the first guy wouldn’t tackle him,” Schleusner said. “He’s elusive and really strong. Even when guys get their hands on him he can run through that. He doesn’t get arm tackled. He’s not the biggest guy, but he’s strong for his size.”
Due to his size (5’10), Johnson is likely best suited to work out of the slot at the next level. However, he can play out on the boundary. With his quickness and ability to make defenders miss he can be used in a gadget role.
“He’s a complete football player,” Schleusner said. “He’s not big, but he’s physical. He holds his own in the slot and he also had the speed to line him up on the outside and he could just run by people. He just created a ton of big plays for us.”
Matt LaFleur and his staff demand that wide receivers have the ability to block. Johnson may not be the biggest guy, but that doesn’t stop him from being an asset in the run game. The 5’10 receiver is a tenacious run blocker out on the boundary.
“He plays bigger than he is,” Schleusner said. “He isn’t afraid to mix it up. He played quite a bit in the slot for us. He wasn’t afraid to go in there and mix it up with linebackers, who had a lot of height and size on him. Cade has really quick feet and he’s tenacious. He was probably our best blocking receiver.”
Route running is the area where Johnson’s game grew the most during his time at SDSU. The coaching staff for SDSU was limited with what they could have Johnson run when he arrived on campus. Fast forward a few years and now he has a full grasp of the route tree.
“He lined up almost exclusively in the slot and we were doing more option routes with him as a freshman,” Schleusner said. “In his sophomore and junior year, we moved him all over the formation. He has a high football IQ. If we drew it on the board or we talked about it in the classroom setting he’d be able to go out there and execute. He played all over the field, so he has the full route tree. He can do things in the slot, but on the outside, he’s tough to jam and he has really good top-end speed. He was able to do it all for us.”
Johnson will get a chance to showcase his talents against some of the best in the country at the Senior Bowl this year. It will be a step up in competition for Johnson. When Johnson did see a step up in competition at SDSU he did not disappoint. During the 2019 season against the Minnesota Golden Gophers, Johnson caught six passes for 90 yards and added 25 rushing yards.
“He’s a complete football player and he’s competitive,” Schleusner said. “If you go back to the Minnesota game in 2019, he had a 95-yard kick return called back right before halftime. I’d argue that he may have been the best player on the field that night.”
How Johnson fares down in Mobile, Ala., during Senior Bowl week will be huge for the former FCS stand out. With no 2020 tape to rely on, this will be Johnson’s chance to show NFL talent evaluators that he’s the complete package at wide receiver.
“He’s a dynamic playmaker,” Schleusner said. “He’s tough and you can ask him to do a lot of different things. I think he’s similar to a lot of the guys that the (New England) Patriots had as far as the little guys in the slot, but they’re tough as nails.”
There are some similarities between Johnson and former Packers wide receiver, Randall Cobb. Johnson checks in at 5’10 and weighs 180 pounds. Cobb was 5’10 and 192 pounds. They both are (were in terms of Cobb) dynamic return men. They both have the ability to make the first guy miss.
Fit with the Packers
The Green Bay Packers will likely address the wide receiver position in the 2021 draft. How early they address the position and how often remains to be seen.
Packers general manager, Brian Gutekunst could take a receiver on day two and look to add another on day three. That’s where Johnson comes into play.
Johnson is a well-rounded receiver. He could step in on day one and provide special teams value as a return man. The Packers desperately need to improve their special teams this offseason and Johnson could help in that regard.
He has the ability to play in the slot and on the boundary. He’s got the quickness, ball tracking skills and the hands to be a reliable deep-ball threat.
Johnson also has the ability to work the underneath routes out of the slot. With his ability to force missed tackles, he could develop into a dynamic receiver out of the slot for LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers.
On top of all that Johnson is an absolute dog as a run blocker. That type of effort out on the boundary as a blocker in the run game likely has LaFleur smiling from ear to ear.