What Courtland Sutton Learned from Thomas, Sanders, he's Passing on to Broncos Rookie WRs
It's a marvel to think that heading into just his third year, Courtland Sutton has become the long-tooth in the Denver Broncos wide receiver room. When Sutton first arrived as a green-behind-the-ears second-round pick back in 2018, he had the likes of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders to show him the ropes.
Although Sutton is a supremely talented wideout, his stratospheric rise to Pro Bowl form last year can be partially attributed to the example set by Thomas and Sanders when he first arrived in Denver. Thomas didn't last long and was traded midway through Sutton's rookie campaign, and the young receiver had at least one very public clash with Sanders, but even if purely by osmosis, Sutton learned a lot from his veteran teammates.
Now, even as an ascending player, Sutton suddenly finds himself as the elder statesman in the Broncos wide receiver room. Rookies drafted in the premium rounds like Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, as well as seventh-rounder Tyrie Cleveland and college free-agent Kendall Hinton, will look to Sutton to set the tone and example.
On Tuesday, Sutton talked about this new circumstance and what advice he's given to his new rookie teammates.
“I think one of the things I would say is trust in and believe in what ‘Coach Z’ (Azzanni) has, the plan. Coach Z is someone who—he loves what he does to a ‘T.’ He’s very passionate about how he coaches and what he believes in," Sutton said via virtual presser. "It can come off—some people might look at is as he comes off too much, but he does it because he loves us. He doesn’t want us to fall under our potential."
Like Sutton, WRs Coach Zach Azzanni is entering his third season with the Broncos. He's coached all-timers like Thomas and Sanders and deserves a lot of credit for how quickly Sutton developed through the steepest stretch of his NFL learning curve.
When Azzanni arrived in 2018, a veteran like Sanders had already reached the pinnacle of both individual and team success. As a two-time Pro Bowler with multiple 1,000-yard receiving seasons, Sanders initially clashed with the young, up-and-coming Azzanni.
But it didn't take long for Sanders and Azzanni to get on the same page. All it took was the coach posing the right question to Sanders in order for the paradigm to shift.
"We butt heads, but at the end of the day we have a common goal and we want to win," Sanders said back in June of 2018. "We’ve been working it out and I’ve been listening to him, he’s been listening to me. It’s starting to pay off because he always tells me, ‘You can get better, you know, that right?’ and I’m like, ‘OK, OK’ and I’m listening. It’s starting to work.”
One can only hope the Broncos' new class of wideouts can embrace a similar thirst for knowledge and improvement. Sutton went on to dish on his second piece of advice to Jeudy, Hamler, and company.
"Number two is just having fun," Suttons said. "Not making it harder than it is—I think that was one of the biggest things my rookie year. I put so much pressure on myself because I never wanted to disappoint Demaryius or Emmanuel. I put so much pressure on myself. I had fun, but there were times where I was so in my own head about not making a mistake. I was like ‘Don’t mess up. Don’t mess up. Don’t mess up,’ instead of just going out there and having fun and playing the game the way I knew how to play the game. I think once you understand that, I think that’s where you start having a lot of fun.”
Sutton had an impressive rookie debut but in his second year, he took his game to another level in the wake of Sanders getting traded midseason. Suddenly, Sutton was the guy and had to contend with the opponent's No. 1 cornerback on a snap-in/snap-out basis.
The fact that Sutton produced 72 receptions for 1,112 yards and six touchdowns is even more impressive considering he had to catch passes from three different quarterbacks. When the rookie Drew Lock was inserted in Week 13, Sutton elevated his game to another level, providing a surefire target. He didn't let Lock down, hauling in two touchdown passes and posting 74 yards on four receptions. Sutton's effort allowed Lock's debut to get off on the right foot.
But succeeding on the grid-iron is just as much about doing the right things off the field, especially this year where players are very much under the microscope due to the pandemic. Sutton had some advice for the rookies in this department, too.
“The advice I would give them for off the field is manage your time. Manage the time when it comes to film study," Sutton said. "Managing your time and understanding that we’re professionals first—Emmanuel was somebody who instilled that into my head as a rookie... Then also taking care of your body—that’s something that Demaryius taught me my rookie year and something that I still take to my career to this day. Take care of your body because you only get one."
Sutton made it to the Pro Bowl in his second year, which isn't something either of his mentors could say. Thomas was drafted in 2010 and made his first Pro Bowl in Year 3, but it took having a premier quarterback in Peyton Manning to get him over the hump. Sanders was also drafted in 2010 by Pittsburgh and didn't make his first Pro Bowl until Year 5. Surprise, surprise, Sanders' first real NFL accolade came only when his path crossed with Manning.
The Broncos are hoping that Lock can similarly be that tide that raises all ships. If Lock's five-game audition last year was any harbinger, it would appear he's cut from a similar cloth as Manning in terms of being that magnetic leader and distributor of the football who makes the guys around him better.
"Drew has—I’ve always said Drew’s got swag," Sutton said. "Since he’s got his start, I’ve said that Drew’s got swag and y’all have seen it. He plays with a different type of swagger and we love to see it. It’s one of those things that you—when you’ve got that young energy around you, it feeds off. When it comes from your quarterback who everyone looks at as your leader, I think it brings a different juice, a different energy to everybody from not just the players but to the coaches as well."
Combined with second-year TE Noah Fant, the Broncos offense is young and teeming with explosive talent. Now, Sutton and Lock just have to lead the way, with a little help from RB Phillip Lindsay, in putting it all together on the field.