Standing Tall: How Courtland Sutton grew his game
Just as he did as a kid, Sutton is playing as big as he is — and perhaps even bigger.
By Ben Swanson Oct 10, 2022

Courtland Sutton and his friends called one of their favorite games "Throw 'Em Up Smack 'Em," and Sutton was a natural.

In the game — some variation of which is played in schoolyards across the country — someone throws a ball high in the air to a waiting mass, and a person in the group comes down with it and proceeds to try to avoid tackles to score. For Sutton, this game and others they enjoyed during P.E. or recess, like Jackpot or 500, played to his strengths.

Ever since he was young, he'd been considered tall for his age, and in the realm of sports, it could provide a significant edge. The ball would go up, all the kids would leave their feet and as Sutton learned how to nail his timing, he could top most of his peers.

At the time, it was a skill that simply made him better at a kid's game. After two or so decades, though, Sutton can look back on it and see that understanding how to use his size to his advantage shaped what would become a career in the NFL as one of the league's leading receivers.

"I think it stems from, as a kid, playing a lot in recess," Sutton says. "… Stuff like that, I feel like definitely helped play a part in that. And then I always just wanted to be a guy that was able to make those big plays."

Standing at 6-foot-4 and now 26 years old, Sutton is obviously still big for his age.

Using a website called "Tall.Life," one may calculate their height percentile among adults in America, and upon entering Sutton's listed height, the result is impressive. According to the site, Sutton is in the 98.9th percentile in this country.

Helpfully, the percentile calculator also designates a judgment for the result, too. The conclusion is one word: "Tall."

In the more complicated version of "Throw 'Em Up Smack 'Em" that Sutton now does as his job, it's helpful to be officially tall. In other ways, it may not. Plane rides may be cramped, and it's harder to shop for clothes off the rack.

Regardless of the occasional inconveniences, Sutton has no issues with it.

"I would never take it away," Sutton says. "I'm grateful that God allowed me to be the height that I am. If anything, I always joke about if I was a little bit taller, who knows if I'd be playing football? Maybe I'd be playing basketball somewhere."

For a season in college at Southern Methodist University, Sutton gave that a shot. He was essentially a walk-on for the Basketball Hall of Famer Larry Brown's shorthanded basketball team, as he joined the team midway through the 2015-16 season. Sutton got a few minutes of game action and made a three-pointer, but he logged more considerable time on the court in practice.

Beyond being a "dope experience," Sutton says he also came away with some lessons that he could apply in football. Listed at 6-foot-4 even then, Sutton was listed as a forward on the Mustangs' roster. Every other forward was at least three inches taller, and there were four guards who were taller than Sutton, too.

"For us he played bigger than that," Brown told The Gazette’s Paul Klee in 2018. "We used him under the basket. I honestly thought if he would have come to us his freshman year and stayed with us, he would've been a regular player for us. He made our practices better every day."

Against the larger forwards, Sutton was forced to figure out how to play in the post and rebound regardless of the height disparity. As a rebounder, he found himself learning how to assess the ball's trajectory when it caromed off the rim at various angles and speeds and how to create physical leverage to create the space to ensnare the ball.

"If you don't put a body on a 6-[foot]-10 big and you're trying to get a board, there's no way you're going to get the board," Sutton says. "And 6-10-plus basketball players can jump out the gym. So the only way you're going to have a chance to get the ball is if you put a body on them and go up and high-point it. It definitely taught me leverage, being able to understand how to use it to your advantage, understanding where the ball might be coming down at, how you can put a guy on your back. All those things are things you learn from hoopin'."

The mindset that required also paid off.

"It definitely teaches you to have this edge about you," Sutton says. "Because I knew that I wasn't recruited to play basketball, I wasn't supposed to be in that space with them boys, but I was in that space with them boys. They obviously saw something, so, shoot, I'm going to go out there and put a body on somebody, go up there and get the ball and make plays as much as I can. … It definitely gave me like a little chip knowing that I can go in there and body with them boys and get boards, and if I can body with them and get boards, then if I'm going against anybody shorter than me, I should be able to go up there and get that."

For cornerbacks, Sutton's height is only a small part of what makes him hard to cover.

Since the days of learning that being able to simply outleap an opponent meant he could dominate a game in recess or under the Friday night lights, Sutton has developed his skill set to incorporate more dexterous footwork to make him more than just a deep receiver.

"He possesses a lot of challenges for opposing DBs with his size," cornerback Pat Surtain II says. "He also has speed, too. So, he's just a dynamic player that's strong, physical, can catch any 50-50 ball. He's just one of those special players on this team."

During the Broncos' summer training camp sessions, no players may have gotten as good an understanding of Sutton's skills as Surtain and fellow starting cornerback Ronald Darby, who were often matched up with Sutton in one-on-one coverage. It provided some of the more entertaining battles as Russell Wilson worked on his deep throws.

"He's got good size, he can run, he can cut, can catch — that's the main thing — and he's consistent," Darby says. "Works hard. He likes to make a lot of his routes look the same. He plays fast."

But when it comes down to it, there may be no more formidable part of Sutton's arsenal than when he's able to use his height and athleticism in combination with one of Wilson's famous deep balls.

"He knows how to utilize it very well, especially when he's the backside X [receiver] on those one-on-one matchups," Surtain says. "He knows how to use his body. He's also got great body control once he's in the air. He's just a very dynamic receiver who's capable of doing anything."

So far this season, it's all paying off. Heading into Week 6, Sutton ranks tied for sixth in receiving yards with 417, and he's become a reliable target for Wilson as he settles in during his first season with the Broncos in a new offense.

Just as he did as a kid, Sutton is playing as big as he is — and perhaps even bigger.

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