ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Courtland Sutton's first NFL touchdown was right out of his scouting report.
The lanky SMU product worked his way across the field, powering past Jets linebacker Avery Williamson and then running past safety Marcus Maye as he tiptoed the back of the end zone. As Case Keenum extended the play, Sutton finally flashed open, running toward the back corner. Keenum fired a dart, and Sutton, using every bit of his nearly-80-inch wingspan, hauled in the pass, tapped both feet down and fell to the turf.
The words President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway had spoken in April when he selected Sutton with the 40th overall pick had come to life.
“He’s big and he can really run,” Elway said. “He can make the very difficult catch and make great catches. … We think that his ceiling is very high.”
And while that play showed everything Sutton could be on the football field, it also proved to be just the beginning of a rookie year that had plenty of similarly impressive moments. It was just a peek at what Sutton can become, though. He’s just taking the first steps of fulfilling his potential.
Fast forward a few weeks. It’s Halloween, and Sutton’s costume is one he’ll don the rest of the season in the wake of the Demaryius Thomas trade: starting Broncos wide receiver.
He patiently answers a wide range of questions from the oversized media scrum surrounding his locker at UCHealth Training Center. One query is simple: Is he ready?
He has a similarly simple answer.
“For sure,” Sutton says. “I don’t flinch from situations like this.”
This is the answer that sticks out, and his confidence isn’t unfounded. The week before, he led the team with 78 receiving yards.
“I don’t know how he didn’t go top 10 in the draft,” cornerback Chris Harris Jr. says. “His talent is unreal. He can make all of the catches. I’m excited to see him step up in his role.”
He did just that, leading all wide receivers with 57 receiving yards four days later. Against the Chargers in Week 11, his 30-yard catch with 20 seconds remaining set up Brandon McManus’ game-winning kick. And after not having a game with more than three catches in the first 11 contests, Sutton finished with at least four catches in three of his final five games.
The transition from backup to starter to — in the wake of Emmanuel Sanders’ injury — No. 1 wide receiver would be a tough one for any player, but especially for a rookie. Mainly operating as a deep threat, Sutton was averaging a terrific 19.1 yards per catch before becoming a full-time starter. That number fell to 16.8 by season’s end, but that’s common for a true No. 1 wide receiver, who is asked to run a wider variety of routes.
“I got a little respect from the defense,” Sutton said following the season finale against the Chargers. “I have to find ways to get open. [Opposing defenses] are going to put a safety over the top to try to take away the deep ball, [so I have to be] able to run those intermediate routes at a consistent rate and get open and give the quarterback confidence to know even if there’s small separation, [he] can still throw it over there.”
In fact, Sutton became a more efficient target for Case Keenum as he settled into his starting role out wide. In the season’s first eight games, Sutton caught just 17 of his 37 targets. In the latter half of the year, he caught 25 of 47.
“He’s grown in so many ways,” Keenum said in early December. “I think he’s doing a good job of building his route tree, his craft. I think he’s doing a good job of not just being a one-trick pony. I think he’s doing a good job of being able to run all sorts of different routes. When you’re dangerous like that, you’re tough to cover.”
Elevating to the top spot on the wide receiver depth chart has also put Sutton in position to compete against opponents’ top cornerbacks every week. That’s not only a terrific learning experience for a rookie wide receiver, but it also made his body of work all the more impressive.
“I love it,” Sutton said Dec. 26. “I love it. I get everybody’s best guy. I get the safety over the top, too, which is really nice because obviously that means that they see something in my game, but I love it. Nobody can look at my numbers this year and say, ‘Oh, he was going against the [third and fourth] corners,’ or, ‘He’s going against the nickel the whole time,’ or anything like that. People know that I was going against the one and the two corners, and that was just something I’m glad I’m able to do and looking forward to being able to do for years to come: getting everybody’s best guy, so I can put some really good things on film.”
Despite only starting nine games, Sutton has established his name in the Broncos’ record book. His 42 receptions and 704 receiving yards are both fourth-most most among rookies in franchise history, and his four touchdowns are tied for second.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have room to improve, though. In fact, that’s what makes Sutton’s rookie season so promising: There is ample room to grow into the star receiver the Broncos envisioned he would eventually become when they drafted him in April.
“I’m going to do a lot of film study on myself [and] a lot of film study on the [defensive backs] that I’ll play against a lot when the schedule comes out. I’m going to watch all the film on those guys, getting a beat on them before the season ever starts,” Sutton said. “Physically, I’m going to get my body to a point where I feel like I can play at a really high level for 17-plus weeks.”
Sutton’s rookie year provided small glimpses of potential. The highlight-reel catches and the ankle-breaking moves were proof of that. As he moves forward as an integral part of the Broncos’ future, he should only continue to improve, turning those small glimpses as a rookie into an every-week occurrence as a second-year player.
“You can never say, ‘Oh, I’ve peaked,’ at any position,” Sutton said. “Getting to see myself as the [top wide receiver] for those few weeks, it was eye-opening, and it was also one of those things that I know I can compete at a high level with any defense, no matter who’s in front of me. It definitely gave me a little bit of motivation to want to be a top-five receiver in this league, because I know I can be that guy.”