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Courtland Sutton's expanded route tree makes him Flacco's early favorite target

Broncos' second-year receiver opened season with 7 catches, 120 yards in loss to Raiders.
Credit: AP Photo/D. Ross Cameron
Denver Broncos wide receiver Courtland Sutton runs with the ball past Oakland Raiders middle linebacker Marquel Lee (52) during the first half of an NFL football game Monday, Sept. 9, 2019, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/D. Ross Cameron)

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — If this is going to be a breakout season for Broncos’ second-year receiver Courtland Sutton, let the record show it began not with the Broncos’ season opener Monday at Oakland, but back in mid-April while no fans were watching a practice.

The Broncos were holding their first offseason practice of their voluntary minicamp. It was held in the Pat Bowlen Fieldhouse and from the first play against air, new quarterback Joe Flacco immediately set his eyes on Sutton.

“Definitely helped to be able to get in there and run around and catch the ball from him whether it was OTAs, minicamp, training camp to get that timing down,’’ Sutton said in an exclusive interview 9News this week. “It was like that for all of us to be able to get in with Joe and see how he throws the ball and see where he likes to release it, where his mindset is.

“And being able to run a route full speed is something that definitely helped not only myself but everybody in our room.”

Everybody but Emmanuel Sanders. You could see it was going to work out perfectly. Sanders, who can fall out of bed and run a precise route that Flacco can measure up, was recovering from surgeries on both ankles. As the veteran No. 1 receiver was coming along steadily and surely, Sutton was getting rep after rep after with Flacco.

Yes, DaeSean Hamilton, Tim Patrick and bunch of young newcomers were also getting their catches from Flacco, but the QB’s favorite target was unmistakable from that first day.

It paid off in the regular-season opener as Sutton had his best game as a pro with seven catches for 120 yards, although the Broncos fell to the Raiders, 24-16. As a rookie last year, Sutton never topped six catches or 85 yards in a game.

“I think all of his physical attributes you can just see, they’re there for everybody to see,’’ Flacco said. “He’s big, he’s long, he can run and he has good hands. He can reach out and snag the ball in coverage. This game, it just worked out that lot of the things that we were calling to him he at least had a little bit of a window to make space to get a little bit of space and made the catch. I thought he did a really good job. He was really patient. He got all his depth, and then once he caught the ball you can see what he can do. He was popping out the other end, almost took a couple really far.

“I think it’s all exciting when you look at him. He’s young, but the other thing is you don’t get to see a lot of it in practice and even in preseason games. He’s definitely a gamer. He was super excited to be out there, and he carried that all throughout the game and played tough. All those things that you can’t really see in practice, I think he definitely has all of those other qualities that you really need to play in this league.”

It wasn’t just Sutton’s production against the Raiders, but from where he was producing. Labeled as a one-trick, go-route receiver as a rookie, Sutton caught five of his passes between the hashes against the Raiders. He turned those middle patterns into catch-and-runs for a total of 108 yards.

“It was cool to be able to get that rhythm going and coach Rich (Scangarello) giving me that opportunity to showcase that I was more than just a down-the-sideline, fade/go-ball type of guy,’’ Sutton said. “So it was good to be able to do that and put it on film because now it’s going to make my game that much more versatile.

“Now I have these things that are on film so when teams come to game plan against me it’s like, ‘Oh he’s not just a go-ball guy, he does a little bit of everything. He goes between the hashes and the outside. We’ve got to make sure we know where he is and have an eye out for him.”’

It was Sutton’s yards-after-the-catch Monday that conjured up thoughts of another former young receiver from the Broncos’ past: Brandon Marshall. Both are big receivers who like to run rather than sit down after the catch. Marshall at 6-foot-5, 230 pounds is an inch and 10 pounds bigger than Sutton. And Marshall has more than 920 catches and 11,500 yards than Sutton.

But while the 35-year-old Marshall may have caught his last pass, Sutton is just getting started. And the early signs are Sutton will bring far less drama while still knowing how to use his body as a weapon against smaller defensive backs.

“Being a 6-4, 220-type of guy you have to be able to use your body and play with that size,’’ Sutton said. “And be able to take some of those hits coming across the middle and it comes with that territory when they say you’re a big receiver. I embrace it and it’s a lot of fun to be able to go out there and showcase what God blessed me with.

“I mean 6-4, there’s nothing I did. Being able to maintain 220 pounds and move around like an agile guy, it’s a blessing to be able to do those things that I’m able to do. And I definitely don’t take those blessings I have for granted.”

If Sutton can complete his step up in year two, the Broncos could again have one of the league’s top receiver duos. Demaryius Thomas is gone the way of veteran journeyman as he’s on his fourth team in 11 months, leaving Sanders to partner with Sutton.

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They grew up 18 miles from each other in Texas and both attended SMU. They are separated by 9 years in age, and had to be separated during a brotherly spat during training camp. But Sanders had a nice second half against Oakland and finished with five catches for 86 yards and a touchdown.

That means Sutton and Sanders combined for 12 catches, 206 yards and a touchdown. Pretty good Game 1 production. They figure to be featured prominently in Game 2 today against the Chicago Bears at Empower Field at Mile High.

“Emmanuel and I are two guys who came from the same school, who grew up about 20 minutes down the road from each other,’’ Sutton said. “We have a very unique connection.  Everybody has their ups and downs but you know that your brother is going to have your back.

“One thing I know about Emmanuel is he wants the best not only for myself but everyone in our room, everyone on our team because he’s been at the peak. He’s won the Super Bowl, he’s went to Pro Bowls. He’s done all those things and he wants everyone to have the same success that he’s had.’’

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