The summer months are a time of optimism for football fans. Now is the time where fans consume every bit of information about how their shiny new rookies are doing in rookie minicamps and OTAs. This is also a time where newly signed free agents are able to show their stuff on the practice field and remind everyone why they were such a high-priced commodity a few months ago. Another staple in these months is the schedule release and fans are already going through their favorite team’s schedule and putting wins and losses next to each game with excitement and hope that this season will be better than the last. Yes, these are the days.
One storyline that seems to be forgotten amongst the excitement of the rookies, free agents, and schedule release is the updates from players who are returning from injury. These players who missed most or even all of last season due to injury have been out of sight and out of mind so it’s easy to forget about their progress when so many other exciting things are going on. But just because they have been out of the limelight doesn't mean we should minimize the potential impact of these players if they return healthy this season.
Every year we see players return from a significant injury from the season before and go on to have a big impact on their team’s success. Heck, we even made up an award for this exact phenomenon called the Comeback Player of the Year award. Players such as Alex Smith, Keenan Allen, Peyton Manning, to name a few, have suffered major injuries but have been able to recover and have an outstanding year the following season.
With so many talented players suffering injuries last year, the competition for this year’s Comeback Player of the Year Award is expected to be pretty tough. The obvious choices are Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, who suffered a gruesome ankle injury in Week 5 of the season, and New York Giants running back Saquan Barkley, who tore his ACL in Week 2 and is looking to bounce back and prove to everyone why he was the second overall pick back in 2018. While these two are the clear favorites, other names such as Odell Beckham Jr., Joe Burrow, Nick Bosa, and Derwin James all figure to be in the mix as well. There are a handful of other players I could list here, but one name that does stick out to me as someone I feel is going to have a huge impact returning from injury is Denver Broncos wide receiver Courtland Sutton.
Sutton is a former second-round pick drafted by the Broncos back in the 2018 NFL Draft. He played sparingly early on as a rookie behind veterans Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas but saw his role increase after Thomas was traded midway through the season. Sutton flashed a very intriguing skill set as a rookie, showcasing outstanding hands, body control, and a massive catch radius to make contested catches look easy. Sutton finished his rookie season with 42 receptions for 702 yards and four touchdowns—playing with Case Keenum as his quarterback.
Year two is where Sutton truly broke out and established himself as one of the best young receivers in football. Sutton was forced to take that next step in being a true No. 1 receiver in his second season, as the team traded Sanders early on in the year. Sutton met the challenge head-on as he was a dominant force on the outside, again showcasing his size, strength, and overall athleticism to make plays on the football and be a nightmare to bring down after the catch. He finished his sophomore year with 72 receptions for 1,112 yards and six touchdown receptions while earning a trip to the Pro Bowl.
Expectations for the young star receiver were sky high entering year three. The team was entering the season with excitement around quarterback Drew Lock, who was set to open the year as the team’s unquestioned starter after finishing the 2019 season strong after winning four out of the five games he started to end the year. The Broncos also drafted two receivers high in the 2020 NFL Draft adding Jerry Jeudy in the first round and KJ Hamler in the second round. The plan for the Broncos was to surround Lock with as many talented pass-catchers as possible and with a receiver corps of Sutton, Jeudy, Hamler, and tight end Noah Fant, that’s about as talented of a group that you’ll find. Unfortunately for the Broncos and for Sutton, his third year ended really before it even began. After missing Week 1 of the 2020 season due to a shoulder injury, Sutton suffered an ACL injury early in Week 2, ending his season completely.
Almost eight full months since his injury, Sutton is ready to reclaim his place amongst the slew of young pass-catchers who have entered the league in recent years. Sutton is in store for a monster year this season for multiple reasons.
When healthy, Sutton is a mismatch receiver who is outstanding when the ball is in the air and when he is running after the catch. He is a true No. 1-type of receiver who can win in contested situations and in got-to-have-it moments. That being said, unlike when Sutton broke out in 2019, he won’t be counted on to be the team’s No. 1 receiver as Jerry Jeudy is looking to take that next step. Sutton will be able to settle in as the team’s No. 2 receiver and face single coverage, where I’ll bet on him to win a one-on-one match-up every day of the week and twice on Sunday.
Another reason why Sutton is primed for a big year is his relationship with Lock. In the five games Sutton and Lock played together in 2019, Lock targeted Sutton 40 times—by far a team high. Sutton’s big body and large catch radius is a quarterback’s best friend because it offers the passer some margin for error. With receivers like Jeudy and Hamler who aren’t necessarily big players with large radius, the pressure is on the quarterback to put the ball as on target as possible. With a receiver like Sutton, Lock can feel a little less pressure to be as accurate as he possibly can be—and for a quarterback whose accuracy is just above average, that’s a big deal.
What we determine as a successful season for Sutton is all relative and stats may not tell the full story here. With Jeudy, Hamler and Fant all looking for targets and with Vic Fangio’s desire to run the ball with Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams, targets could be hard to come by. I think the best measurement for success for Sutton is the eye test—and when you watch Sutton, if he is consistently winning his matchup on the outside or if he’s making plays when his number is called, that is success. Sutton may not be a household name just yet and I know we are spoiled by the number of quality receivers that have entered the league over the last three seasons, but when healthy, Sutton is as good as any of them.
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