LANDOVER, MD. — The word Courtland Sutton kept coming back to following Friday night's 29-17 win over Washington was "ascendant."
It's a word he hopes to use to describe his performance every rep, every snap, every day and every game. Fueled by the successes, encouragement and mentorship of veteran wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, Sutton has dedicated himself to consistent improvement throughout training camp and into the preseason.
But on Friday night, "ascendant" took on another meaning for the second-round pick out of Southern Methodist, as he ascended over Redskins cornerback Josh Norman on a 27-yard snag late in the first quarter. It was an impressive play, but the first step in that process was mental — having no fear in his matchup against Norman, a former All-Pro performer.
"I just go out there and I look at everyone I go against as a nameless, faceless opponent," Sutton said. "My job is to make the play when the ball comes my way. It doesn't matter who's guarding me. I just gotta make sure I'm out there executing to the highest level possible."
Though Sutton's professional career is just months old, he's developing an impressive rapport with quarterback Case Keenum. Sutton knows that earning Keenum's trust is vital, so he has to prove he is worth that trust every opportunity he gets.
"The fact that he sees that confidence in me and gives me the chance to go make those plays, I'm very grateful that he even gives me those opportunities," Sutton said. "Because of me being a rookie and us having two great older vets on the team, him having the confidence to throw it my way is awesome. ... It's important for me to make sure I keep allowing him to have that confidence in me by making those plays. Any time he gives me that chance and throws it my way, I've got to make sure I'm making that play."
Consider that goal achieved, as that ascension continued on Friday night. Sutton reeled in all three of his targets — two of which went for first downs — and finished the night with 45 yards. On a night that is generally regarded as the dress rehearsal for the regular season, Sutton certainly performed up to standard in the starters' most extensive action so far this year.
"I feel confident in my receivers that they're going to come down with the ball, or nobody is," Keenum said. "When the ball's in the air, they feel like it's their ball. I'm glad they feel that way. That's trust. That's trust in me, that's me trusting them, and I think that's important, so I think we're building that."
Sutton was a big-play threat at SMU, averaging 16.5 yards per play over his career. His 3,220 career receiving yards are third in Mustangs program history. Sutton boasts the size — 6'3" and 218 pounds — and physical skills — his 35.5-inch vertical was among the top dozen wide receivers at the NFL Combine — to become a reliable downfield threat for Keenum. Five plays after Sutton's grab over Norman, fellow rookie Royce Freeman found the end zone. It's the second straight week Sutton's big frame has caused problems for opponents down the field and led to a score: Last week against the Bears, Sutton drew a 45-yard pass interference penalty. That also led to a Freeman touchdown.
While Sutton streaking downfield has become a common occurrence — both at SMU and in his first few months with the Broncos — that hasn't been the case with Sanders. Last year, Sanders' longest catch went 38 yards, but nearly all of those came after the catch.
So on Friday, when Keenum hit Sanders for 33 yards up the sideline, it was a welcome sight. Keenum threaded the ball right between the cornerback and the incoming safety, allowing Sanders to duck out of the way just in time to avoid a big hit.
"Great play-calling by Bill [Musgrave], great throw by Case," Sanders said. "He allowed me to really catch that ball and get down because the safety was coming to help. I give credit to those guys."
That catch was part of a drive in which Sanders accounted for 75 yards and capped it with a 27-yard scamper into the end zone off an end-around. Sanders has never scored a rushing touchdown in his professional career.
"It was fun to put together that drive right there," Sanders said. "That's a drive that I can take into Week 1."
The big plays on display from Sutton and Sanders on Friday are something the Broncos missed badly in 2017. Last year, the team averaged 6.5 yards per pass attempt, 26th in the league. In Keenum's 18 first-half attempts Friday, he averaged 8.2 yards overall and 9.6 when targeting either Sanders or Sutton.
But it wasn't only the deep ball that was an encouraging sign on Friday. The first-team offense mounted three lengthy scoring drives: The first went 11 plays, the second went six plays, and the third went 10 plays. The Broncos averaged 6.6 yards per play, out-gained Washington 206-110 yards and led 17-3 in the first half. They also converted three of six third downs, including a 15-yard dart from Keenum to Sanders on third and 15. Overall, Keenum spread his 12 completions out to six different targets.
"When you're getting everybody involved that's a great feeling," Keenum said. "I think that's unselfish football by everybody. Getting everybody going, that's when you get creative."
In the first week of the preseason, Denver's first-team offense did not pick up a first down. In the second week, it put up 10 points, and on Friday it put up 17. That's the type of ascension Sutton — and the rest of the Broncos — are looking for as they move toward the regular season.