by Alex Kurpeski
One of the few bright spots on an otherwise mediocre Denver Broncos offense, wide receiver Courtland Sutton emerged as a true WR1 for a team with very little direction. Sutton’s target share rose from a meager 14.3% as a rookie to a 24.7% share in 2019. The fact that nearly a quarter of the team’s passes were funneled towards Sutton speaks volumes about the trust that the Broncos coaching staff had in the former second-round pick’s abilities. Sutton finished last season with 72 receptions for 1,112 yards and six touchdowns, numbers that were good enough to lead him to a WR19 finish in PPR formats. This introduction may lead you to wonder why a well-rounded 24 year-old receiver coming off of a breakout season would be due for a regression in his third year, a season during which many receivers are supposed to take their game to an elite level. The answer to that question lies in the offseason moves made by Broncos GM John Elway, who has taken it upon himself to surround QB Drew Lock with a treasury of viable pass-catchers.
Most 25+ yard receptions in 2019:
▫️ Kenny Golladay – 17
▫️ Courtland Sutton/ Chris Godwin/ Stefon Diggs – 16 pic.twitter.com/6mLQMYGWSk
— PFF (@PFF) July 6, 2020
During Lock’s scorching finish to the 2019 season he targeted Sutton on 25.6% of his throws, sticking with the status quo that had been established in the team’s passing attack. However, during that stretch Sutton never managed to top 80 yards receiving, a feat that he had accomplished five times before during the season when paired with Joe Flacco and Brandon Allen. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this aspect, but from what I gathered the team elected to use Sutton more on short and intermediate routes with Lock in the lineup. For a receiver who tends to find the majority of his success on contested catches and deep throws, this could very well lead to a regression in Sutton’s yardage totals this season (assuming the team uses him in the same capacity).
The additions of Jerry Jeudy and K.J Hamler complicate Sutton’s outlook, as they are two dynamic playmakers with route-running abilities that may very well surpass Sutton’s sooner rather than later. Both Jeudy and Hamler are capable of excelling on a variety of different routes, which could allow them both to see a significant target share in their first season with the team. Considering the fact that Sutton was essentially Denver’s only viable downfield threat last season (and their only real receiver once Emmanuel Sanders was traded), it’s evident that his target share from last season was a product of an undersaturated group of pass-catchers. Sutton was rather inefficient with the targets that he did receive, reeling in only 57.6% of the passes thrown to him. Given Jeudy’s status as a first-round pick — and perhaps more importantly a “generational talent” — Sutton’s days as the Broncos WR1 may already be over. While the pandemic shortened offseason will certainly create a larger learning curve for both Jeudy and Hamler, both members of the duo are capable of usurping Sutton on the depth chart.
We have yet to mention the fact that tight end Noah Fant is set to take a step forward following an up-and-down rookie campaign. Fant’s ascension from toolsy prospect to legitimate NFL tight end may very well occur this season, a leap which should coincide with an increase in the 2019 first-round pick’s target share. Beyond Fant, the Broncos have added former Pro Bowl RB Melvin Gordon (a very capable pass-catcher) and Lock’s college teammate TE Albert Owkuegbunam to the roster this offseason, bringing our grand total of “new mouths to feed” to four (yikes!). With all of the new pieces set to be integrated into Denver’s passing attack, it’s hard to imagine Sutton’s target share going anywhere but down this season.
Let’s circle back around to the team’s quarterback situation, where 2019 second-round pick Drew Lock has been crowned king of the castle, with many fantasy enthusiasts projecting him to become “the next Patrick Mahomes”. Sure, Lock is a visibly talented passer who looked very comfortable leading the charge during a string of meaningless games for the team at the tail end of last season. But if you look beyond the surface there are some deep flaws that could ultimately impact Sutton’s production. While Lock completed a respectable 64% of his passes during his rookie campaign, he struggled mightily with his accuracy during his time at Missouri, finishing his college career with an unremarkable 56.9% completion percentage. Should Lock’s issues with inaccuracy and turnovers (he had six in his five starts from last year) persist in 2020, it’s possible that Sutton could see an even lower percentage of catchable passes while also facing competition from the newly added playmakers we discussed earlier. If this is the case then Sutton’s regression would be guaranteed.
In my opinion, the odds are stacked heavily against Sutton this season. That being said, he should remain a top-30 receiver this season.
Courtland Sutton 2020 Projection
- 66 receptions (-6 from last season)
- 111 targets (-14 from last season)
- 1,031 receiving yards (-81 from last season)
- 6 receiving TDs
- 205.1 fantasy points ~WR25 (-6 spots from last season)
This may be a very minor regression but it could be evidence of a larger scale regression from Sutton in the future.