While the bulk of the 49ers’ focus in the 2021 NFL Draft is on Round 1, these late-round sleepers could be just as vital to land.
In 2017, the San Francisco 49ers were heralded for selecting Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas and linebacker Reuben Foster in that year’s NFL Draft.
Turns out, however, the Niners’ best pick from that year was a fifth-round addition, a little-known tight end out of Iowa, George Kittle.
Heading into the 2021 draft, it’s understandable the majority of the focus is centered around what San Francisco does with the No. 3 overall pick. After dishing out three additional selections to move up from No. 12 overall, the 49ers are almost certainly going to grab a quarterback, likely followed by other key positions of need in Rounds 2 and 3.
Yet general manager John Lynch and his scouting staff are also going to need to hit on a couple of the proverbial “diamonds in the rough” to be had in the later rounds on day three of the draft.
This means identifying and drafting some sleeper picks, who hopefully wind up having a Kittle-like trajectory after being passed on by other teams for multiple rounds.
Here are five such hidden-gem sleepers the Niners can go after on draft day.
49ers Sleeper No. 5: WR Cade Johnson, South Dakota State
San Francisco is likely to take advantage of what’s being considered a tremendously deep draft class at wide receiver, and one of those players worth looking at is a small-school prospect out of South Dakota State, wide receiver Cade Johnson.
At 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, Johnson projects as an NFL slot-type receiver who has both shiftiness and great footwork that were both fully on display during the 2021 Reese’s Senior Bowl workouts, as Yahoo! Sports Eric Edholm pointed out:
"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."
Before being forced to miss the 2020 season because of the pandemic, Johnson was pretty electrifying as both a deep threat and over-the-middle slot receiver, accruing 139 receptions for 2,554 yards and 25 touchdowns between 2018 and 2019.
As far as under-the-radar players go, Johnson certainly fits the bill and is likely going to be a sixth- or perhaps even a seventh-round selection, giving a team like the 49ers plenty of chances to land this versatile and speedy threat.