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GIF Horse - Is Courtland Sutton ready to be the Broncos number one receiver?

The breakout is here. Courtland Sutton has proven he is the Denver Broncos number one wide receiver in 2019.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Denver Broncos
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Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve read GIF Horse for awhile now, you probably already know how I studied with The Scouting Academy this summer in order to do a better job evaluating the Denver Broncos this year. As part of the curriculum, students are given choices of different position modules. At my earliest opportunity, I chose to study wide receivers, in part because of how critical the development of Denver’s young pass catchers are to the future of the franchise.

Which brings me to Courtland Sutton. He’s been phenomenal right out of the gate this year and looks like he’s headed for super stardom.

In week 1, Sutton caught 7/8 passes for 120 yards in Oakland.

After watching Sutton’s 2018 tape over the summer, I had a number of concerns. As a rookie, Sutton frequently relied on an outside release and his own physicality to beat press coverage. This was a big reason why his production hit a steep decline after Emmanuel Sanders went down for the year in December.

Sutton’s three biggest issues in one play.

In the play above, the Bengals are playing Cover 1 with a press. The Broncos use a fake to Royce Freeman to give Sutton open space to run his slant behind the linebacker. Only William Jackson sticks on the Broncos’ receiver through his first step and stays on him through the route. Sutton is forced to catch Keenum’s pass with Jackson draped on him and ultimately can’t bring it in.

The other big concern I had for Sutton coming into year two was the quality of his route running. The SMU product is a good, but not elite speed threat. Combine this with the lack of nuance to his stems and you start to see why he often struggled to gain separation last season. A lot of his catches were contested because of it, which played a part in his disappointing 50% catch rate.

Last year, Sutton’s release against press left me concerned with his ceiling.

What a difference one year makes. Much like the clips above, Mike Pettine’s Green Bay leans heavily on his corners to play press technique. Even when the Packers are using a Cover 3 shell, it often works like man coverage because of the match up principles as part of the scheme. This meant Sutton had plenty of opportunities to flounder in Wisconsin.

More than once, Sutton schooled the Packers’ Kevin King.

Instead, Sutton flourished. His final stat line of 87 yards on five catches doesn’t do justice to the work he put in on film. The second year pro showed off an ever-improving repertoire of moves to befuddle cornerbacks, routinely impressed as a blocker, and should have finished with a touchdown.

If Flacco steps into this throw, it’s 6.

Notice how Sutton uses an inside fake to get outside, because throughout the game he’s now become comfortable using a single move to get himself separation into his stem. Unfortunately, on the play above, Flacco is pressured off the left side and throws with his arm rather than his whole body. It causes the ball to sail, and while Sutton still adjusts to haul it in for a big play, the drive ends in three after this:

Sutton couldn’t haul this inbounds and the Broncos fail to score a touchdown on this red zone opportunity.

Heading into week four against the Jacksonville Jaguars looked like a prime opportunity for Sutton to really prove how much he’d grown. There’s perhaps no better cornerback duo in football than A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey, after all.

Instead, Ramsey missed his first NFL game with a back injury and Sutton went off for two touchdowns. He did so by abusing the Jaguars in all manner of ways, which should really get Broncos Country excited for how Scangarello is scheming his receivers open.

It’s wild to see 2+ targets get open after the Bill Musgrave offense in 2018.

The play above is from the Broncos’ last drive of the game. Immediately after reaching the 2-minute warning, Scangarello dials up this Tight Gun formation and has both Sutton and Sanders hitting the sticks before a 90 degree cut to the right. Jacksonville responds by sending five, a common theme for their defense in the second half. Joe Flacco dumps it off to Royce Freeman, who manages to get a short gain before reaching the sideline.

It’s hardly the only time Scangarello has set his personnel up in a no-lose situation.

Easy completion on this “Alert” play.

If you read Jeff Essary’s Tale of the Tape last Saturday, you already know the Broncos have started to mix Run Pass Options into their offense. What’s a bit harder to identify is how the Broncos are using Alert plays more liberally this year than at any point under Bill Musgrave.

On the play above, Joe Flacco has the opportunity to turn and give the ball to Phillip Lindsay on a stretch run to the right. Instead, he decides at the line to get it to his slot receiver on a quick slant because the off coverage makes it an easy five-yard gain on first down.

When run to perfection, these plays are basically stealing.

Sutton gets the ball off a pick with room to operate after the catch.

Having an OC who can effectively get the ball into his playmaker’s hands is a big reason why the Broncos are one of the 12 most efficient offenses in the league through four weeks. Here’s one more example where talent and scheme make Sutton’s talents really shine.

The Broncos are running Trips to the left with Sutton aligned as the X-receiver to the right side. On the snap, Sutton and Fant run what’s called a mesh concept, which creates a lot of trash for the defenders in coverage to sort through. The play leads Flacco to an easy completion to his receiver at the sticks, and Sutton has green grass to create more offense.

One of the things you may be left wondering after all these plays is how Sutton looks on outbreaking routes. After all, most of his biggest plays this year have been on Post, Slant, Crossers, and Go routes. That shouldn’t be a surprise, as they provide an opportunity for him to use his physicality and to shield the ball away from defenders in coverage.

He’s no slouch on outs either.

RB motion gives Sutton a mismatch in the slot that he abuses.

It’s 2nd and 8 in the first quarter and the Broncos come out in Split Gun Tight. Flacco motions Lindsay out into the slot, allowing him to drag the boundary cornerback with him. The slot corner, or Apex defender, slides out to cover Sutton. Stop for a moment and you’ll notice the Apex is positioned to defend inside breaking routes on the slot receiver, which leaves him vulnerable to Sutton breaking outside.

Later in the game, Sutton has an even more impressive route, though he doesn’t manage to haul in the pass.

This Broncos’ drive dies when the ball slips through Sutton’s grasp.

I’ll admit I was pretty devastated during the game when Sutton couldn’t bring this pass in. With that said, it speaks volumes about his growth that Flacco has leaned so heavily on him on third downs this year. It’s a big reason why the Broncos’ sophomore is one of the most efficient receivers in football by both DYAR and DVOA.

Sutton’s a go-to guy in 2019, and the Broncos count on him to move the chains.

Final Thoughts

One of the prevailing rumors with the Broncos’ playoff aspirations all but dead is that the team could look to move some of the older players for draft capital. Before this season, I was really concerned about Sanders’ health and how Sutton would look if pressed into the role of number one wide receiver. I wondered if he’d ever be that guy or just top out as a good to very good second banana.

Through four games, most of those concerns have gone by the wayside. It’d certainly make things harder for him to lose E as a running mate, but Sutton has shown all of the growth I’d hoped for and more.

With a trip to Los Angeles and the Chargers’ talented secondary up next, the burgeoning star has another tough task. I’m excited to see how he answers the call.

The sky’s the limit.