ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — It's more evident now than it was then but to set the record straight, the Broncos didn’t have to trade Emmanuel Sanders for Courtland Sutton to become the team’s No. 1 receiver.

“Like I’ve said before,’’ Sutton said Wednesday. “I’ve never showed up to work saying that I’m going to practice and perform as a No. 2 receiver.”

There are stats supporting his, and everybody else’s belief that he is the Broncos’ one and only. Sanders was traded to the 49ers in exchange for essentially a high, third-round round draft, after Game 7 this season. Here’s how Sutton and Sanders compared at that point:

Receiver ... C … Yds … AVG … TD

Sutton .….. 36 … 564 … 15.7 …. 3

Sanders … 30 … 367 …12.2 ….. 2

Sutton had established himself as the team’s No. 1 receiving weapon, exchanging places from the previous year with Sanders. Here’s how those two have stacked up since Sanders was dealt to the 49ers after Game 7 -- with the note that Sanders has played in six games to five for Sutton. The Broncos had their bye week after the trade and San Francisco’s bye was before the deal. So Sanders has a chance to play in 17 games this year:

Receiver …. C … Yds … AVG … TD

Sutton ….. 18 … 342 .… 19.0 ..…. 3

Sanders … 21 … 250 .…11.9 ..….. 2

While Sutton’s impact has gone up since Sanders was dealt – only the Vikings’ Stefan Diggs has more yards per catch than Sutton’s 16.8 among the league’s receivers with at least 48 receptions – perhaps the primary explanation for his growth has been the natural improvement that comes for most players in their second season.

“Night and day,’’ said Phillip Lindsay, the Broncos’ running back whose rookie season last year was a tad better than Sutton’s, but Sutton has  taken over as the Broncos’ player to stop in year two. “You guys are seeing a person that is growing into his body. He understands his leverage and his body.

“You can tell that he went back for the summertime and really, really practiced his routes—which we all knew that’s what he wanted to do. Now you guys are seeing somebody that’s more comfortable and confident, and that’s going to continue.’’

Where Sutton has elevated his game to a Pro Bowl-caliber level is how he’s single-handedly carried two Broncos’ quarterbacks to successful NFL debuts. And in the case of Drew Lock, we mean single-handedly.

Both Brandon Allen and Lock won their debuts in large part because Sutton gave each a calming, 7-0 lead with a spectacular touchdown catch off similar go routes. Sutton joins Detroit’s Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones as the only receivers who have caught touchdown passes from three quarterbacks  this season.

“Just having a guy that you can rely on in one-on-one situations is huge,’’ Lock said. “Anything that makes you more comfortable back there -- and Courtland definitely does that -- is big for any quarterback, especially a guy that’s going out there for his first time.”

Going forward, what the Broncos need more than further improvement from Sutton is a younger Sanders to pair with Sutton.

“Now it’s time for us to find pieces around him so that he doesn’t get double-teamed 24/7,’’ Lindsay said. “People like DaeSean (Hamilton) and Tim (Patrick), this is their time. This is their time to go out there, handle their business and get their money as well.”

Look for Broncos’ general manager John Elway to make receiver near cornerback as the team’s priority positions this offseason.

The good news is it’s much easier breaking in a No. 2 or 3 receiver than it is a No. 1. It took Sutton a year as this isn’t the first time he has been proclaimed as the Broncos’ No. 1 receiver. In the final four games of last season, Sanders was down with a torn Achilles. The Broncos were coming off three consecutive victories that moved them to 6-6 and the periphery of playoff contention.

But whether it was the rookie wall or needing an offseason to refine his route-running, Sutton wasn’t quite ready for No. 1 responsibilities. He finished the final quarter of last season with 14 catches for 163 yards – 3.5 catches and 40.8 yards per game.

He still finished with respectable rookie totals of 42 catches for 704 yards. But he has 54 and 906 this year with four more games to join Lionel Taylor (1960) and Brandon Marshall (2007) as the only Broncos' receiver to surpass the 1,000-yard milestone in his second year.  

As the Broncos’ prepare for those final four games starting Sunday at Houston where they will be 9.5-point underdogs to the Texans, Sutton’s body may not feel much better than it did at this time last year. But his game is more prepared for the stretch run.

“If you constantly grow and try to develop yourself on and off the field, then it starts to come to you (gradually) because you kind of understand what to expect of yourself and what kind of what to expect of everything moving forward,’’ Sutton said. “Physically, … at this point of the season, I think everyone has nicks and bruises. If you’re going out there and putting it all on the line every single week, you’re going to feel it for sure. I think no matter what, rookie season, second year or however many years down the road, this late in the season you’re going to feel a little bit of things.

“It’s all about taking care of your body. Being able to take care of it, being able to get massages, getting the cold tubs, getting the hot tubs, doing the NormaTec boots and the chiropractor. All of those things are things that help us stay fresh for the rest of the season.”

RELATED: Beginner's Lock! Sutton helps rookie QB enjoy debut as Broncos defeat Chargers, 23-20

RELATED: Broncos notes: Rypien returns to practice squad

SUGGESTED VIDEOS: Sports