Back in the 2018 draft, the Denver Broncos selected in the second round a raw, yet very intriguing talent in wide receiver Courtland Sutton. With all of the traits of an explosive downfield threat, including a rare size and speed combination and the ability to jump out of the building, Sutton was brought in as a future replacement for either Demaryius Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders.
Coming out of Southern Methodist University, a school primarily known for a high-flying spread offenses that doesn't task its receiving threats with knowing a full and complementary route tree, there were a lot of questions surrounding Sutton's ability to immediately translate to the NFL outside of being a 'my ball' receiver deep down the field or as a red zone target in jump-ball situations.
Early in his career, that seemed to be the case, as Sutton failed to catch on throughout the majority of his rookie season, despite being thrust into a major role after the departure of Thomas via trade and the Achilles injury to Sanders later in the year. With a relative inability to create separation, concentration issues when catching the football, and lackluster play at the QB position, Sutton's rookie season ended with a lot to be desired for fans and analysts alike.
Fast forward a year, and Sutton showed incredible growth as a receiver, displaying markedly improved route running as well as the explosive playmaking ability that made him a second-round selection.
Heading into training camp, Sutton was poised to be the big man on campus and primary focal point of the Broncos' passing attack. With Sanders still working his way back from the torn Achilles that prematurely ended his 2018 campaign, Sutton and fellow second-year players DaeSean Hamilton and Tim Patrick spearheaded a young and promising wide receiver room.
Much like his rookie training camp, Sutton turned several heads with his 'above the rim' style of play, making several catches in jump-ball situations. Those big plays in camp were a harbinger of things to come for the 6-foot-4, 216-pound receiver.
Seemingly every day, Sutton would make a 'wow' type of play by either going over the top of a defender to make a catch, or with his noticeably improved route-running ability.
But despite his penchant for the big play, the concentration issues shown from his rookie camp followed him into his second year, and there were questions on whether Sutton could be a true WR1 in the league.
However, when the lights came on and the snaps mattered, Sutton hit the ground running, figuratively and literally.
By season's end, Sutton led all Broncos receivers in every major statistical category with 72 catches for 1,112 yards and six touchdowns. Every week, he made huge plays for the Broncos offense.
We saw him become an unstoppable force with the ball in his hands, shedding tackles at will and turning short routes into massive gains. We saw him jump over people to make ridiculous catches at all levels of the field.
And we witnessed the ascension of a player that could be a top-5 player at the position should his exponential growth over this year continue to trend in the same direction in 2020. Let's take a look at the Broncos offensive MVP from 2019.
Arguably the biggest and most noticeable development to Sutton's game over the course of the season was his ability to create separation with his route-running alone. He has always possessed a catch radius comparable to the size of an elephant but using nuanced and precise routes allowed him to further accentuate that catch radius.
I really wanted to show a play from the beginning of the game here because when I first saw the play I thought that it was Sanders — a route-running technician — on the play in question. It was a simple five-yard out route, but the cut itself is what drew my attention.
A man with Sutton's size shouldn't be able to cut like that. However, one of his best routes came later that day, as the Broncos were trying to regain the lead late in the fourth quarter.
At the bottom of your screen, you'll see Sutton lined up one-on-one with Tre Herndon with a single-high safety rotating towards the far side of the field. Sutton recognizes this immediately, and what happens next is a thing of beauty.
At the snap, notice how Sutton sets up Herndon with an inside release to get back inside the numbers and take advantage of the hole in the deep secondary.
With no help over the top, this is easy pitch and catch, but the recognition and understanding of how to set up Herndon for the top of the route is impressive. A subtle head fake and sharp cut to the post leaves at least five yards of separation, leading to an explosive play to set the Broncos offense up in scoring range. Herndon stood absolutely no chance here.
With the frame Sutton possesses, it's no wonder that he is an incredibly hard player to tackle. All season long, Sutton made several would-be tacklers completely whiff as he bullied his way down the field.
Even earlier in this snow game against the Chiefs, Sutton took a screen pass out of his own endzone and turned it into a 33-yard gain while running through two defenders on the way.
I chose this play not only because Sutton ran through a handful of players on 1st-&-10, but because of the balance on a slippery field surface, the competitive fire in a game that was over early for all intents and purposes, and the fact that this play overshadowed Sutton's sloppy play for the majority of the day. It was also the reception that took Sutton over the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his young and bright career.
Ability to Create Explosive Plays
After losing a heartbreaker to the Jaguars and falling to 0-4 on the season, Denver went into Los Angeles looking for vengeance against a division rival. After an opening possession score and a quick defensive stop, Sutton put the Chargers on the ropes quickly to open the game.
Lined up in the slot at the bottom of the screen, Sutton runs a smooth corner route to beat the Chargers, who are in what looks like Cover 3. Going back to his ability to shed tackles, Sutton slips the tackle attempt of Chargers safety Rayshawn Jenkins, then turns on the after-burners for a 70-yard touchdown.
This was one of several explosive plays from the Broncos to open this game and one of several from Sutton using his ability to create yards after the catch.
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'My Ball' Mentality
Perhaps the most underrated aspect of Sutton's game is his ability to win contested catch situations, especially of the jump-ball variety. Prior to the Chiefs game in Week 15, Sutton posted insane numbers in contested catch situations, going 9-for-9 on jump balls on the season, before the Chiefs' superstar safety knocked away what would have been a touchdown pass in the corner of the endzone.
The size and athletic ability that Sutton possesses allow him to be a viable option on any pass attempt, even if he is double covered downfield. Sutton is very aggressive when the ball is in the air, and if he gets his hands on it at the highest point, he will almost always come down with it.
Here against the Vikings, Sutton wisely sets up CB Xavier Rhodes with an inside release to open more room on his corner route. Rhodes does a great job in coverage, knowing he has help over the top with perennial Pro Bowl safety Harrison Smith in bracket coverage, and recovers nicely after Sutton initially created a few yards of separation.
Rhodes is draped all over Sutton as the ball arrives and is in great position to make a play on the ball, but Sutton's 'my ball' mentality wins over the great positioning and recovery of Rhodes en route to a 48-yard gain. There's no way to cover that any better.
The 'Wow' Factor
When you talk about the elite-level wide receivers in the NFL, almost every one of them has that one 'wow' factor to their game that separates them from the pack. From Odell Beckham, Jr.'s one-handed grabs, to DeAndre Hopkins' toe taps, to Michael Thomas' route-running, they all have that one signature ability.
Sutton's 'my ball' mentality is most certainly his signature trait, but the way that he can contort and control his body in the air and adjust to the football makes it stand out against the rest of the competition. Several other players have that mentality, but not all of them possess Sutton's ridiculous body control, especially for a man with his frame and body structure.
Look no further than his ridiculous catch against Chargers CB Casey Hayward in Week 13. Sutton goes full extension and secures an amazing one-handed catch to score his first touchdown of the game.
What it Means
Sutton's growth over the course of the 2019 season went relatively unnoticed outside of Broncos Country. It's easy to see that considering Sutton was not voted to the AFC's Pro Bowl, despite putting up similar numbers to Cleveland's Jarvis Landry, who was voted to his fifth career appearance to the league's all-star game.
It's worth mentioning that Sutton was named an alternate for the Pro Bowl but unless a receiver ahead of him drops out, he'll be watching from home.
It's only a matter of time before NFL and its fans take notice of the player he's become, though. Defensive coordinators made a lot of adjustments to neutralize Sutton over the final stretch of the regular season, oftentimes playing against him with safety help over the top in bracket coverage.
Denver really needs to bring in a better and more complimentary weapon to take some of the pressure off of Sutton in the passing game, preferably a speed threat that can take the top off of the defense and open up the middle of the field.
Despite that, there is one big aspect to Sutton's overall performance in 2019 that leads me to believe that he could be a top-5 wide receiver in the league here directly, and I purposefully selected the five plays above for that reason.
The one thing that I want you to notice from each of these plays is who is playing quarterback. There is at least one big play featuring Sutton from each of the three starting quarterbacks the Broncos trotted onto the field this year.
Sutton has developed into a player that can transcend quarterback play. He doesn't depend on quality play from his signal-caller and can create his own big plays at will.
Not a lot of players have that kind of ability, and it's a direct correlation to the hard work and dedication that Sutton has crafted into his game. Denver found a stud in 2018, and the sky is the limit for his potential.