ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — With one cut, Courtland Sutton’s reality changed.
During an early December practice, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders ran a route during positional drills and as he made his break, his Achilles tendon gave out.
Sanders was quickly ruled out for the season — and that signified the end of any sort of allotted adjustment period for Sutton.
When the second-round pick arrived in Denver in April, he was positioned behind Sanders and Demaryius Thomas on the depth chart. But a midseason trade that sent Thomas to Houston and the subsequent injury to Sanders pushed Sutton to the top of the line.
Just 13 games into his career, the SMU product became Denver’s No. 1 option. And that meant different expectations — and different results.
Prior to Sanders’ injury, Sutton showed flashes against teams’ No. 2 or No. 3 cornerbacks. He recorded at least 50 yards in six games and scored three total touchdowns.
But Sutton expected more of himself than he showed in the final four games of the year in which he recorded 14 catches and 146 total yards.
“You can’t go into a game and have one or two catches,” Sutton said Tuesday as the Broncos returned for Phase 1 of their offseason program. “You have to go into a game and be ‘that guy’ every day. That is something that I know, and I accept that role. I’m looking forward to being able to being a guy that gets the seven- or eight-plus targets going into the game and knowing that I’m getting those. … That is just one of the smallest things that I recognized and I noticed in those last four games. I’m going to take that into this next season.”
Sutton said he spent the offseason training in Florida to work on his speed. After a rookie season in which he was consistently able to explode up in the air for jump-ball catches, he said he wants to be more than a possession receiver. Footwork drills, Sutton said, should improve his yards after catch and help him “turn into a running back” once he gets the ball in his hands.
That increased awareness is just one component of moving from a rookie to a second-year player. Last year — before he was thrust into the No. 1 role — Sutton was “just trying to feel it out.”
“Having a year under my belt, I know what to expect for myself and what my teammates expect from me,” Sutton said. “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.”
As he looks for that success, he’ll rely upon a pair of veteran players.
Sanders, whose option the Broncos picked up in March, may be Sutton’s biggest resource in finding his place in Offensive Coordinator Rich Scangarello’s scheme.
“Emmanuel is a great leader and a great vet for our room,” Sutton said. “I love being able to be around him. I was actually just talking to him a little bit in the locker room just about how exciting it is for this new offense. He was telling me how he’s played in similar offenses, and he’s already starting to give me some of the insights of what he learned being in this type of offense before. Just something like that is awesome.
“I’ve never been [in] an offense like Coach Rich’s. Having someone like Emmanuel who has been in something similar and being able to break it down and help me understand the nuances of this offense and the benefits that come from being able to maximize certain things in this offense, I’m excited and I know he is really excited as well.”
Then, of course, there’s the man who will be throwing Sutton the football.
When quarterback Joe Flacco first met Sutton this week, he couldn’t help but notice the young receiver’s energy.
“I actually walked up to him and he was like, ‘You have so much energy.’” Sutton said. “I was like, ‘Get used to it.’ I get excited waking up in the morning. Being able to come here and this be my job and getting to be an organization like this, it’s an exciting thing for me. I told him, ‘Get used to it because you’re going to get a lot of it.'"
That exuberance should help Sutton stay motivated as he and Flacco get to know the intricacies of each other’s games.
Sutton explained that while he’s watched Flacco on film, there’s a different element involved when players hit the field. The Broncos aren’t able to participate in on-field work with a football for a couple of more weeks, but Sutton knows there’s a lot to learn.
“He’s going to have different things that he likes to do in the pocket, different checks and all these different things,” Sutton said. “Us learning him and him learning us, it’s going to take time. Who knows when it’s going to click? Hopefully sooner than later it’ll click. We’re just going to take every practice as a learning day, and that’s really it. Just growing every single day — taking it day by day and growing every single day.”
That could lead to more catches, more yards and more success — which is exactly what Sutton expects.
“I’m taking all of those lessons that I learned from those last four games and taking them into this season and taking those expectations and going to run with them,” Sutton said. "Now I know what is expected of me.
“I’ll make sure that I do what I’m supposed to do.”