ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As a second-round draft pick in 2018, Courtland Sutton posted respectable numbers in his rookie season as he entered the league behind Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.
By the end of the 2018 season, though, Sutton found himself as the team's No. 1 target. Thomas was traded to Houston before the deadline, and Sanders suffered an Achilles injury before the final four games.
In that limited stint as the team's first option, Sutton's numbers dropped. He recorded just 146 receiving yards in the final four games and had a pair of games with 25 yards or fewer.
Sutton entered the 2019 season to questions about whether he could handle being the Broncos' No. 1 wide receiver if Sanders wasn't healthy enough to begin the season.
"Having a year under my belt, I know what to expect for myself and what my teammates expect from me," Sutton said in early April. "I'm excited going into this season knowing that I am going to get to be the No. 1 [receiver] and I'll get all of [those] looks and all of the pressure. I'm excited about that. I want my teammates to look to me as that leader and that guy that is going to assume that role and take it and go with it as long as I possibly can."
Sutton didn't let go of the role, even as Sanders returned to the lineup for the Broncos' season opener. Through the first seven weeks of the 2019 season, Sutton led the team in receiving yards, receptions and touchdowns. The Broncos traded Sanders to the 49ers following Week 7, and unlike in 2018, Sutton thrived.
The Southern Methodist product's numbers dipped slightly, as he averaged 5.1 catches and 80.6 yards per game before Sanders was traded and posted four catches and 60.8 yards after the trade.
Sutton, though, drew timely penalty after timely penalty following Sanders' departure.
Through the first six games, Sutton drew just a single penalty. He then drew penalties in 10 consecutive games to end the season.
And while his acrobatic touchdown catches against the Browns and Chargers are more likely to make a highlight reel, his ability to place defenders in impossible situations is equally as valuable. In a Week 8 game against Indianapolis, he drew a pair of pass-interference penalties and a holding penalty against Rock Ya-Sin. Those numbers don't show up in his receiving totals, but they gave the Broncos an extra 51 yards.
Then, in Week 13, Sutton handed the Broncos a win as he drew a 37-yard penalty against the Chargers' Casey Hayward to set up a game-winning field goal.
In Denver's season finale, Sutton drew a pair of pass interference calls against Oakland's cornerbacks. The second penalty set up the Broncos' only touchdown in a 16-15 win. The Raiders were also hit with a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty when Erik Harris delivered a helmet-to-helmet blow on Sutton.
Add the penalty yardage to Sutton's receiving yards, and you'd have an even more impressive total than the 1,112 yards he posted in 2019.
Sutton also demanded double-teams in the latter half of the season, like at the end of a Week 11 game against the Vikings. Minnesota devoted two players to Sutton in the end zone as the Broncos tried to earn a come-from-behind win.
Despite the extra attention and despite playing with three different quarterbacks, Sutton finished 2019 ranked 19th in the NFL in receiving yards and 16th in yards per reception.
"I just think he's grown right from the start," Head Coach Vic Fangio said in mid-December. "I'm thinking back to [organized team activities]. He's grown from there. He kept growing in training camp and he's grown throughout the season. He hasn't hit a lull. He just keeps going. He's a competitor and with his talent, coupled with his competitiveness, he should keep improving."
In all, Sutton finished with 72 catches for his 1,112 yards and six touchdowns in his sophomore campaign, which was enough to earn him a spot as a Pro Bowl alternate.
Sutton became just the third player in franchise history to record a 1,000-yard receiving season before the end of his second season, and he was the first player to hit the mark since Thomas and Sanders did so in 2016.
He improved his game in nearly every statistical category from the previous season, as his targets (124 in 2019; 84 in 2018), receptions (72; 42), yards (1,112: 704), touchdowns (6; 4), yards per game (69.5; 44.0) and catches for first downs (50; 30) all went up.
With another offseason under his belt, Sutton expects to be even better in 2020.
"There is no step back — no going backward in the process," Sutton said in late December. "It's only moving forward. I'm going to continue to demand excellence out of myself, demand growth out of myself mentally, physically, spiritually. Just go into the offseason and just really grow and demand that I know that there is more out of myself. It's just a lot of film study, a lot of putting it into the dirt — just working. That's really what it is, finding what things I want to improve on and find the things I did well and making that even better. All of those things that are going to make me ultimately become better."
Consistency at the quarterback position could also help. Sutton caught a pair of touchdowns in Drew Lock's first start, and Lock seems thrilled about his future with the play-making receiver as he heads into the offseason as the team's presumed starter.
"I think the potential for him on this field with the style of offense we run, the weapons that we're going to have around him and hopefully me delivering the ball to him for a long time, I think he can be one of the best to ever play," Lock said in mid-December. "At the same time, there's a lot of work that is going to come with that. I think we're just … starting to dip the toes in the water a little bit and feeling each other out.
"There's a lot of potential for us to be super good together."