Few Broncos enter training camp with more promise and pressure than Courtland Sutton. This time last year, any production out of the SMU product was considered a bonus, and he turned heads left and right with his ability to go up and bring down deep bombs in training camp.
The hype was real, and once the regular season began, Sutton showed off his aerial acrobatics as the running line became “50-50 balls are more like 90-10” with the 6’3 Sutton. He started the season off hot in limited snaps, producing 17 receptions for 324 yards and 2 touchdowns over the first 8 games of the season. His potential alongside the team’s 3-5 record led Elway to trade Demaryius Thomas to the Houston Texans days before their match-up with the Broncos.
Courtland Sutton profile
Experience: 2nd season
Sutton got some flak for uneven play over the final half of the regular season, as more opportunities only led to 25 receptions for 380 yards and two touchdowns. Broncos Country was perplexed by his disappearing act in the second half of games after Emmanuel Sanders went down with an Achilles injury.
With the 32-year-old veteran expected to miss most of training camp as he completes his rehabilitation from injury, there has been cautious optimism Sutton can make the jump after his first full NFL off-season.
Is he ready?
- Very good body control.
- Good spatial awareness.
- Very toolsy.
- Solid release.
- Comfortable catching passes outside his frame.
- Sneaky speed.
- Good lateral mobility.
It’s easy to get carried away imagining what the future could hold for Sutton. If you drew up an NFL receiver, it’d look a lot like the 6’3” 218 lb Bronco. His agility drills at the NFL Combine are eye-popping for his size, and his 6.57 3-cone time was in the 96th percentile for all wideouts.
I did not expect Sutton to look as solid off the snap as he does when I first turned my focus to him. He displays a reliable stutter step and uses it to creep past a soft press. He’ll also win his fair share of hand fights with defenders and has a decent swim move to help him get free of the line of scrimmage.
Sutton’s best routes come out of the vertical and short areas of the field. He has the frame and movement skills after the catch to become very dangerous on crossers, ins, and slants in Scangarello’s offense. His 16.8 yards per reception ranked 7th in the entire league in 2018 and he’s easily the Broncos’ most dangerous vertical threat.
What really jumps off the tape watching Sutton’s 2018 film is how easily he can stop, turn, and pluck the ball out of the air while he goes up over a defensive back. He routinely looks like a power forward boxing out his opponent, and he’s such a dangerous vertical threat so defenders have to respect him over the top. This gives him room to come back and work underneath them.
- Lacks go-to separation move.
- Reliance on outside release.
- 50% catch rate.
- More smooth than sudden.
If there’s one weakness that will prevent Sutton from ever developing into a true go-to guy, it’s his lack of separation quickness. In the six games I watched, he only showed hints of a rocker step in Denver’s match-up with Houston.
Instead, he relied upon the threat of him running over the top of them to get open underneath or, when that failed, beating them physically. He’ll occasionally win with a push by, but needs to add more to his bag of tricks if he wants to become more than an adequate route runner.
This isn’t a rare occurrence for a rookie pass catcher, as most can get open with their athleticism in college, but to grow as a receiver, it is crucial for Sutton to improve at route manipulation.
As good as Sutton’s YPC was in 2018, he caught just 42 of 84 total targets, which ranked ahead of only 12 players who had 30 targets+ last year. While part of it can be attributed to Case Keenum’s deep accuracy, there’s no doubt Sutton also dropped a few catchable passes.
There are a number of deep misses on Sutton’s rookie film. Part of it is just the cost of doing business, as completing 20+ yards downfield isn’t easy. Keenum also left a lot to be desired as a gunslinger. Sutton’s role in the incompletions can’t be wholeheartedly dismissed, however.
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 has the hip fluidity to stick on the Broncos’ receiver through his first step and stay on him through the route. Sutton’s forced to catch Keenum’s pass with Jackson draped on him and ultimately can’t bring it in.
It wouldn’t have been an easy reception, and Jackson’s among the most underrated corners in the league, but if Sutton’s going to settle in as Denver’s WR1, he needs to win these looks.
This is a prospect who needs seasoning; there’s no getting around the fact that he’s a technically raw player. He could improve as a craftsman and would be downright dangerous if he does. However, early in his career, we shouldn’t be shocked if he gets off to a slow start.
While the team who drafts Sutton waits for that marinating to take place, there are enough trump cards in his arsenal to construct a role for him right away. Sutton gets decent separation on in-breaking routes and is a dynamic athlete out in space. A team can deploy Sutton in that specific fashion early and reap early benefits.
Sutton is a possession receiver who has the size and toughness to handle a heavier target load if necessary, but he will need to improve as a route runner because his play speed and separation is nothing special. Sutton’s ability to win in contested catch situations could get him early playing time as a second or third receiver, but he may not have the explosiveness to ever become a top-flight WR1.
His 36% catch percentage on deep balls ranked 49th among qualified receivers, and this can partly be attributed to former Denver quarterback Case Keenum —who finished with just a 41.7% adjusted completion percentage on deep passes last season.
“He’s such a teacher and that’s one thing that I really enjoy. I had a teacher in college as well, [SMU Wide Receivers] Coach Justin Stepp was the same way. I really appreciate that from Coach Azzanni. He doesn’t let us slack off in our technique,” Sutton remarked.
“He doesn’t let us slack off in learning the game and growing mentally—not only physically because everyone is physically gifted in the NFL. At some point it becomes mental, and you have to be able to play the game really fast mentally. He is one coach that has been harping on me about the mental side of the game.”
Courtland Sutton Highlights
Courtland Sutton’s roster status with the Broncos
Emmanuel Sanders is still recovering from his torn Achilles and could be out until close to the season opener. The extra reps could come in handy as Sutton works to develop chemistry with his new quarterback. But ready or not, Sutton looks like he’ll open camp as Joe Flacco’s number one wide receiver.
Let’s hope he’s ready for it.