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Broncos Film Room: Don't overlook Courtland Sutton as a potential slot receiver

Andre Simone Avatar
May 27, 2018

The Denver Broncos receiving core has added some significant firepower to an arsenal that’s always been strong at the top but severely lacking in depth the past few seasons. Between the last two drafts, Denver’s added four receivers and all except for one, SMU’s Courtland Sutton, profile perfectly in the slot.

This is relevant because while the Broncos are seemingly set with their two outside receivers, they’ve been desperately searching for an answer in the slot since Wes Welker left the Mile High City back in 2014. 

Unlike Carlos Henderson, Isaiah McKenzie, and DeSean Hamilton, Sutton is ideally suited outside. The second-round pick is big, has huge mitts and can dominate 50-50 balls due to his outstanding vertical leap and physicality. His profile clearly makes him a candidate to replace Demaryius Thomas long term.

Looking at all this evidence on the surface, it’s easy to write off Sutton next year. After all, even the boss John Elway’s described him as raw—which he undoubtedly is—leading most people to write him off as a backup, while the other three youngsters battle it out for the third-receiver spot in the slot.

As Lee Corso would say, “not so fast my friend,” as there might be more to Sutton than initially meets the eye and his utility next season could go way beyond just being a backup outside receiver or a red zone target.

Allow us to explain.

Sutton as a big slot

The Broncos new prized receiver doesn’t fit the mold of a classically quick and undersized slot receiver like Welker; there’s no argument there. However, the modern NFL’s seen a rise in bigger slot receivers or big-slots like Brandon Coleman, Jarvis Landry or Mohamed Sanu. 

Even a future Hall of Famer like Larry Fitzgerald, who’s made a career out of dominating down the sideline, has been moved to the slot and become the NFL’s best at the position last season. That doesn’t even account for receiving tight ends who do most of their damage as glorified big targets in the slot and are also among the best producers at the position in the league.

In that sort of role, Sutton can be a really intriguing weapon. Of course, some of the aforementioned inside receivers, like Fitzgerald, are able to produce in the slot due to their savvy route running skills. That’s not an area of strength for Sutton, who’s most raw at doing exactly that. However, if young, raw talents like JuJu Smith-Schuster have strived in such roles, so can the Broncos new big WR.

Another point to consider is that in Broncos offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave’s last stint as a full-time play caller—with the Oakland Raiders back in 2016—he didn’t have a typical, Welker type third receiver, either. Instead, Musgrave used the 6-foot-2 Seth Roberts. Roberts is faster than Sutton but don’t discount Sutton’s deceptive athletic ability at 6-foot-4 and 218 pounds. 

While Roberts ran a faster 40 time when he was entering the league, Sutton was quicker, more agile—with a 6.57 three-cone drill, that’s freakish at his size—and more explosive, with an unofficial 1.52 10-yard split. To put that 10-yard split into perspective, that was faster than Saquon Barkley or Sony Michel who both ran 1.54s.

When watching the tape, you can see that Sutton does struggle to create separation deep, but in working underneath and wiggling free from coverage, he’s quite talented. This is especially true when it comes to working back inside where he can use his size to his advantage, boxing out defenders and making tough grabs in traffic. 

It might seem odd to say about an athlete of Courtland’s stature, but he does look quicker than fast, which bodes well for his ability to do damage as a big slot receiver. 

The ability to create separation inside is clear for Sutton, especially when facing off-coverage, where he can easily take advantage of the cushion opposing defenders give him. He’s also so big and physical, that with a little coaching, he should be able to abuse press coverage which could create big plays for anyone who dares match up with him in press down in the slot. 

He’s also deceptively good in working double moves and setting up corners to then get loose as his route progresses. Another advantage he h,as is against smaller nickel corners, who he can absolutely abuse physically and if teams dare to try and cover him with linebackers or safeties. He has plenty of athletic skill to take them to work while not having to be intimidated by their size. 

That size and ability to high-point the ball is a huge advantage for the rookie over the middle, as he can make tough catches in traffic, and he can also be a monster up the seam.

Time after time, his utility in the slot was evident on short-yardage third downs, where he’d be lined up inside in SMU’s spread-out attack. In those situations, he was very reliable, showing enough understanding of how to gain space on defenders and get in good position to make plays to extend drives. 

Sutton vs. Hamilton

Of course, Sutton’s fellow draft classmate, DaeSean Hamilton, has an advantage, having been used more often in college inside and as a route runner. Sutton’s advantage, though, is his versatility, as he can be an asset in the slot or outside.

The other aspect of the competition between the two rookies is Emmanuel Sanders’ ability to shift in the slot in three-receiver sets. By doing so, Sutton can line up opposite Thomas, giving the offense an embarrassment of size. Opposing defenses will have a hard time matching up with two outside receivers who are that physically imposing and equipped on screens. There simply aren’t enough corners who are big enough to match up with the two, while also being able to slow down Sanders inside.

All that should make the Broncos offense pretty damn dangerous on paper. Certainly a lot more so than they would be by just putting Hamilton inside.

It won’t require much development from Sutton as a route runner to succeed, either. He could especially be devastating to stop on slants, due to his ability to box-out defenders and because he’s a handful to bring down as a runner with the ball in his hands—maybe his best skill right now.

The SMU product also possess great footwork towards the sideline to work back to the outside and make tough grabs with little room to operate. Another advantage he has over his fellow rookie. 

In Conclusion

Certainly, if the Broncos are looking for a classic slot wideout, they’ll have options, but if they want to be more versatile and tougher to match up with, the talented Sutton should be an important factor starting in 2018.

It’ll take creativity to put him in his best spots, but he’s far from out of his element likening up inside, where Denver can exploit a lot more matchups. Don’t buy into the narrative that he’s just a developmental piece. 

Courtland Sutton is the biggest and most important new addition the Denver Broncos have made to upping their playmaking ability on offense this offseason. Using him the right way and not sticking him into a box will be crucial, but the sky’s the limit to what Sutton can do while combined with the two veteran aces the Broncos already have at the position. 


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