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NFL Draft

Year 3 Breakout WR: Courtland Sutton Should Only Continue To Improve

  • The Draft Network
  • June 13, 2020
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The third year of a player’s contract is telling. Will they perform at a high enough level to command a top number once their rookie contract expires? Are they trying to repeat a breakout season to show the naysayers and low graders they are capable of producing consistently at a high level? 

These questions can apply almost across the board to the 2018 wide receiver class, which lacked a true star out of the draft. D.J. Moore and Calvin Ridley were selected in the first round that year while Courtland Sutton started the domino of receivers taken in the second. Dante Pettis, Christian Kirk, James Washington, and D.J. Chark were some of the names that followed. 

Arguments can, and have, been made for some other these receivers’ underappreciated success, including Michael Gallup, who fell to the third round in 2018 and Moore, who some are higher on than others; but within the 2018 class was a raw, A/B-graded prospect with the upside of being WR1. Sutton became that in the Denver Broncos’ offense last season.

Sutton’s first year was underwhelming, but for an SMU product who needed to grow into his role as a WR1, it wasn’t surprising. He finished 2018 with a 63.8 grade, according to Pro Football Focus, and ranked 41st in receiving yards (704), 44th in targets (79), and tied for 56th in receptions (42). His four touchdowns were just inside the top 50. 

The jump he made into his sophomore season was exactly what his high-draft grade begged for. Sutton topped 1,000 yards and 100 targets. He hauled in 72 receptions and six touchdowns, both tied for 20th in the NFL, while improving his grade to 83.1. 

Denver’s plan for the future is working. 

Can Sutton continue to improve in this crowded receiver room?

The Broncos are building around second-year quarterback Drew Lock. They used their top two draft picks to select Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy (15th overall) and Penn State’s K.J. Hamler (46th), leaving no room for regression if Sutton wants to continue leading Denver. 

Last season, Sutton outperformed a thin receiver room and finished with 1,112 yards. He beat out tight end Noah Fant (562 yards) and Emmanuel Sanders (367), who was traded mid-season to the San Francisco 49ers. Once Sanders left in Week 7, Sutton’s average targets per game slightly increased from 7.7 to 7.9 but his yards decreased. There’s an obvious outlier here and that’s the team’s quarterback changes. The Broncos had three different passers under center: Joe Flacco in Weeks 1-8, Brandon Allen starting Weeks 9-12, and finally Lock to close out the season. 

In total, Sutton has played with four different starting passers—including Case Keenum in 2018—two offensive coordinators and two different head coaches and still saw his best production in one of the worst offenses in the NFL in 2019, which makes improvement in his first full season catching from Lock a scary thing for everybody else to consider. After all, Lock’s first NFL touchdown was a deep ball to a heavily-covered Sutton.

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Sutton and Lock will continue to grow together under new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who deploys a mixture of a West Coast and spread offense. It will allow a big-bodied separator like Sutton a better chance to go up and make plays. Shurmur comes from the Andy Reid coaching tree, so think of a similar offense to the Kansas City Chiefs without the wizardry of Patrick Mahomes. 

Shurmur’s approach will highlight Sutton’s best traits, and while Sutton can win on 50/50 balls with his 6-foot-4, 216-pound frame, he can better use his separating skills and 4.54-second speed to continue to be a deep-field threat and produce the illustrious yards after catch (YAC); he ranked 17th last season with an average of 2.6 YAC. 

In one-and-done offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello’s system, Sutton had an NFL-high 42.93% of the Broncos’ targeted air yards, according to NextGen Stats. They relied heavily on him as a deep threat, but they didn’t have much of a choice then.  In Year 2, Sutton showed better route-running ability—he jumped from 1.54 yards per route in 2018 (77th in the league) to 2.48 yards last season (12th)—and bullied defenders with a wide receiver-leading 12 broken tackles on receptions, which points back to the coverage from Lock’s first touchdown pass. 

Defensive coordinators caught on fairly quickly and toward the end of the season frequently double-teamed Sutton. The attention he’ll continue to get in Year 3 can develop Denver’s rookie pass-catchers, and defenses have to account for Jeudy’s playmaking threat, Hamler’s speed, and now Sutton’s well-rounded game. 

It’s a win-win for Sutton and the Broncos, who got a great return from their second-tier receiver. Barring a mind-boggling season from Jeudy, Sutton should only improve from here.

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