Through three weeks of the 2022 season, the Denver Broncos' offense has been emphatically… underwhelming. After years of suffering through anemic offenses led by relative bargain-bin quarterback play, Broncos Country thought the team had finally gotten the offense right and was headed in the right direction with the blockbuster acquisition of quarterback Russell Wilson and his new deal worth $245 million.
However, with the Broncos averaging just 14.3 points per game, second-to-last in the NFL, it shouldn’t be shocking that many fans are on edge. It’s early but it is also fair to say that Wilson and offensive-centric head coach Nathaniel Hackett have been disappointing so far over an exceedingly small sample size.
The Broncos' offense is very likely to get better going forward, though. With injuries and deficiencies on the offensive line, a myriad of injuries hampering the Broncos’ passing weapons, and time needed for a new quarterback and scheme to better mesh, the fact that Denver has meandered to a 2-1 record and currently shares the lead in the AFC West means that while the offense has struggled, the team still has plenty of time to get it together and figure it out.
That is, thanks to the Broncos' exceptional defensive performances so far this season. As Wilson indicated at the podium on Wednesday, with the defense playing the way it is right now, if and when the offense turns things around, this team could be essentially unstoppable.
The offense is far from an engine firing on all cylinders so far, and while that puts a damper on the entire unit, the NFL had better start to take notice of a once again emerging offensive star in wide receiver Courtland Sutton. After bursting onto the scene in 2019, hauling in 72 receptions for 1,112 yards and six touchdowns despite inadequate quarterback play, the NFL world was ready for Sutton to take another step in Year 3, only to see him suffer a season-ending ACL injury in Week 2.
While Sutton flashed his ability at times last season, it appeared that in combination (once again) with below-average quarterback output, he wasn’t fully healthy and trusting his knee just one season removed from the injury.
Despite coming off of a rather serious injury, the Broncos rewarded Sutton last season with a new contract. With Broncos GM George Paton gushing about Sutton’s ability and upside, it still was somewhat surprising to see an in-season deal given to the receiver coming off of the ACL. This was exceedingly true as the season progressed, and Sutton produced fine but not spectacular statistical output.
In 2022 though, with the addition of Wilson and a year further removed from injury, Sutton has been arguably Denver's lone shining star on the offensive side of the ball. Through three weeks this season, Sutton is fifth in the league in receiving yards (291 yards), 12th in receptions (6.3 per game), and second in air yards (371 yards), as he makes big, explosive plays down the field.
As the offensive line struggles to get a push (Denver is currently averaging -0.6 expected points added per inside zone rush attempt, its most used run design so far this season), and pass-catching weapons around Sutton continue to accrue injuries, he continues to make plays as the team’s most consistent and productive offensive player thus far.
While the raw stats point to Sutton having a great start to this year, Football Outsiders’ wide receiver-specific advanced stats indicate that he is off to an even greater start. Sutton is second in the NFL in DYAR at 116, third in DVOA at 35.6%, and second in EYds at 366.
Essentially, Sutton is the second-best receiver in the NFL through three weeks, trailing only Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs. Fueled somewhat by Sutton’s ability to draw pass interference (three on the season for 83 yards), he is helping to carry the Broncos' offense.
Sutton is off to a great start this season despite the Broncos’ currently disjointed offense. He appears to be far and away the team’s go-to option in the passing game and is making the most of his role.
Sutton and company have even left some plays on the field that should be correctable mistakes, indicating there is even greater upside yet from the fifth-year wideout. In Week 1, Sutton was penalized for a false start that took an Andrew Beck touchdown off the board.
In Week 2, Sutton just missed getting his foot in bounds on a goal-line fade, while in Week 3 he dropped a crucial third-down pass that would have helped the Broncos attempt a manageable kick instead of having to punt. It would also be safe to assume that Sutton’s zero touchdowns so far this season will soon be resolved (especially given that he has four red-zone targets already).
It’s been an up-and-down journey for Sutton so far in his career with the Broncos, from dealing with milquetoast passing schemes to inadequate quarterback play and suffering a devastating injury and recovery to boot. However, in Year 5, Sutton appears to be once again taking the field as the de facto WR1 in the Mile High City.
So long as the pass-catching weapons surrounding Sutton continue to find themselves on the injury report or not living up to their hype, he will continue to be a large-volume player on the Broncos’ offense. Wilson and Hackett have leaned heavily on Sutton this young season, and through the first three games, he has delivered as the Broncos' best and most dependable offensive player.
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