Broncos Preview: Courtland Sutton’s to-do list — help Lock, lead rookies, become elite

On June 13, 2013, Austin Schlottmann of Brenham, Texas, committed to stay in-state and play college football at TCU. His decision made, he began talking to the Horned Frogs’ staff about one of his high school teammates — receiver Courtland Sutton.

“I tried to talk the coaches at TCU into giving him an offer so he could come play with us, but I guess they didn’t see it,” Schlottmann said.

The Horned Frogs passed, but SMU offered Sutton a scholarship and he signed on Feb. 5, 2014. In games against TCU in 2014-16, he had a combined nine catches for 228 yards.

“We saw it for four years and he definitely made his presence known,” Schlottmann said.

Years later, the high school teammates are Broncos teammates and the NFL is seeing what Schlottmann saw in high school and college — a legitimate play-maker who enters the season opener against Tennessee coming off his 1,112-yard/six-touchdown breakout season.

“Courtland was always a stud,” Schlottmann said. “And he’s absolutely the same exact person. Hasn’t changed a bit. Just wants to go out there and be the best on the field and he’s doing a great job at that.”

Playing in his third offensive system and with his third starting quarterback, Drew Lock, in as many pro seasons, Sutton’s role is to continue his upward trajectory while leading a young group that includes first- and second-round picks Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler. Most of all, it’s about showing the Pro Bowl appearance was only a start.

“You never want to get to a spot where you get to go to the Pro Bowl and are like, ‘I’ve arrived,’” Sutton said. “I looked at (making the Pro Bowl last year) as motivation.”

Leader on, off the field

During a recent practice, Sutton wore a microphone for the team’s website. The video package was a class in Receiving Technique 101. He gave tips to Jeudy about how to use his hands while running a route and gave Diontae Spencer a few pointers about footwork. It was paying things forward, NFL style.

When Sutton was drafted in the second round two years ago, he joined a receivers’ room led by veterans Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Sutton observed, learned and took mental notes. How to prepare. How to run certain routes. How to set up defenders. How to grind.

Thomas was traded to Houston in October 2018 and Sanders tore his Achilles’ in practice a month later, propelling Sutton to No. 1 status for the final four games. Last October, Sanders was traded to San Francisco and Sutton — already the top receiver — took over the room. He took the aforementioned observations and applied them to hone his style. (Sutton also learned how not to lead from last summer’s incident in which Sanders, who wasn’t even practicing, was yapping at the receivers and ended up in a heated confrontation with Sutton.)

“I always knew he had (leadership traits) in him coming out of college and it was one of the things I really loved about him,” receivers coach Zach Azzanni said. “But you have to grow into that and earn that, especially with the room he walked into with two veterans — he didn’t have to (lead), which was great.

“Him and I talk constantly about leadership opportunities and things during the day he can do to lead and say and do. By doing that, it makes him more accountable to himself and that helps him and everybody around him. He has a presence about him. He’s one of those guys people are drawn to.”

During the coronavirus-caused shortened training camp, Sutton’s leadership has been even more important. The rookie receivers got less than 20 practices and no preseason games before facing the Titans.

“I’ll give those (older) guys credit,” said offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, singling out Sutton, Tim Patrick and DaeSean Hamilton. “They’ve really put their arms around the young guys and they’re trying to bring them along. It’s very important the older guys help lead the younger guys.”

‘Sauce’ to his game

Can a 1,000-yard receiver fly under the radar? That could be the case for Sutton early this season because of Jeudy’s draft status (No. 15 overall) and expectations (lofty). But for Lock to have success in his first full year as a starter, he could lean on Sutton, knowing a 50-50 pass is more like a 75-25 attempt and Sutton understands leverage and angles to draw penalties even on uncatchable passes.

Lock started the final five games (4-1 record) a year ago and Sutton caught 22 passes during that stretch. Lock’s first touchdown pass, 26 yards against the Chargers, went to Sutton when he basically put it in Sutton’s zip code for him to make the play. His second touchdown pass, five yards against the Chargers, was a side-armed throw to Sutton.

Fast forward to the opening practice of training camp last month. Lock’s first two completions were to Sutton. A week later, Sutton ran an in-breaking route, left his feet and contorted his body to catch Lock’s pass that was slightly behind him. Sutton made it look effortless and makes the type of plays that energize an entire offense and maybe an entire sideline.

“He has ‘it,’” said former NFL receiver Nate Burleson, now an analyst for NFL Network and CBS. “He has the flavor. He has the ‘sauce’ as I like to call it. And he plays angry. I see that a little bit in Mike Thomas, Julio Jones at times, Jarvis Landry — Courtland will make a 10-yard catch to move the sticks and is yelling and screaming about making a play and I’m the receiver sitting on my couch in my boxers eating Cheetos and I’m screaming, too, because I love that type of energy.”

The Broncos’ offense desperately needs an energy and productivity boost. The improvement of tight end Noah Fant in his second year and the arrival of Jeudy won’t take pressure off of Sutton (he applies much of that himself), but should make defenses think twice about putting two defenders on him.

Even with the attention, Sutton ranks favorably among receivers drafted in 2018. His 114 catches are third behind Carolina’s D.J. Moore (142) and Atlanta’s Calvin Ridley (127), his 1,816 yards are second behind Moore (1,963) and his 10 touchdown catches are tied for second behind Ridley (17). Last year, Sutton caught touchdown passes from three quarterbacks — Joe Flacco, Brandon Allen and Lock. Yes, he is learning another new offense, but at least Sutton has a five-game foundation with Lock on which to build.

“He started getting really good at understanding the whole concept of a play last year and he’s going to take the next step this year knowing all of the positions on the field, knowing what the quarterback’s reads are and seeing defenses a lot quicker than he did in the past,” Azzanni said. “The game within the game — those are the things he’ll take the next step with.”

Those next steps could put the Broncos back in the playoffs.

Making Big Plays

In 2018, Courtland Sutton had 19 of the Broncos’ 66 “explosive” (gain of at least 16 yards) catches (28.8%) and last year, he had 26 of the team’s 69 “explosive” catches (37.7%). A catch-by-catch recap:

2018 (yards): 20, 25, 16, 21, 42, 41, 28 (TD), 42, 21, 21, 22, 39, 30, 30 (TD), 16, 27, 25, 20 and 19. Sutton had at least one “explosive” catch in 11 of the Broncos’ 16 games.

2019 (yards): 26, 18, 24, 25, 16, 16, 52, 27, 70 (TD), 41, 18, 41, 18, 33, 25, 19, 21 (TD), 48, 43, 27, 26 (TD), 33, 33, 27, 19 and 18. Sutton had at least one “explosive” catch in 14 of the Broncos’ 16 games.