The Broncos will lean heavily on their rookies this year as Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler — the team’s first two picks in last April’s draft — arrive with many expectations as well as hurdles to clear. Sutton, a second-round pick in 2018, has run in those shoes. He says he has had a consistent message for the two new arrivals — listen to wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni and stay out of your own way.
“Not making it harder than it is,” Sutton said. “I think that was one of the biggest things my rookie year. I put so much pressure on myself because I never wanted to disappoint [former Broncos wide receivers] Demaryius [Thomas] or Emmanuel [Sanders]. I put so much pressure on myself. I had fun, but there were times where I was so in my own head about not making a mistake. I was like, ‘Don’t mess up, don’t mess up, don’t mess up,’ instead of just going out there and having fun and playing the game the way I knew how to play the game. I think once you understand that, I think that’s where you start having a lot of fun.”
When Sutton arrived, Thomas and Sanders were in their ninth NFL seasons, had been to Pro Bowls, had reaped the benefits of playing with Peyton Manning and in Super Bowl 50. The mentor-prospect relationship was very clear over the past two years, so much so that Sanders and Sutton even clashed during training camp last summer when Sanders made it clear he believed Sutton was taking liberties he hadn’t earned.
Sutton went on to a 72-catch, 1,112-yard season and was eventually an injury replacement for DeAndre Hopkins at the Pro Bowl. With Sanders gone, Sutton has earned his place as the team’s No. 1 receiver. He’s acting like it off the field, too, condensing what he’s learned from Thomas and Sanders, as well as his own experiences, and passing those on to Jeudy, Hamler and the other younger receivers. He’s advising them on how to navigate the offense, handle their business off the field and put themselves in a position to contribute at a position that hasn’t always been kind to rookies, especially, throughout Broncos’ history.
The Broncos have had three receivers finish with more than 40 catches during their rookie seasons — Sutton was the third with his 42 in 2018. In fact, the top three seasons for a Broncos rookie wide receiver have all come from second-round picks — Eddie Royal’s 91 catches in 2008, Vance Johnson’s 51 in 1985 and Sutton.
The past four wide receivers taken by the Broncos in the first round before Jeudy — Ricky Nattiel, Marcus Nash, Ashley Lelie and Thomas — finished their first seasons with 2, 4, 35 and 22 catches, respectively.
Broncos coach Vic Fangio said receivers “have it really easy” in college football because of the defenses they see. When he evaluated Jeudy and Hamler before the draft, he believed they were well equipped to make the jump.
“I see too many wide receivers, when you’re watching college tape, running wide open and not running NFL-type routes on a consistent basis,” Fangio said. “That’s why it can be a slow process for some of them. Everybody progresses at a different rate. I think in Jerry’s case, he’s coming from an offense that should help him progress quicker based upon the work he puts in. I think the same thing with KJ. I think Courtland would tell you last year — I think Courtland would tell you midway through his rookie season — was a lot different than starting off. I think he would tell you last year was a lot different than his rookie season. There’s a progress that everybody goes through, but for each and every player, it’s different.”
That’s why so much of Sutton’s message to the two high-profile rookies has been a mix of football dos and don’ts to go with some of other items Sutton believes should be on the list to consider. A list that includes route combinations, dinner orders and off-day workouts.
“Managing your time and understanding that we’re professionals first — Emmanuel was somebody who instilled that into my head as a rookie,” Sutton said. “We’re professionals first, so preparing yourself for the game that week is the biggest thing that you can get ready for. That’s one of the most important things that you can do because you’re ultimately helping not only yourself but you’re helping the team because you understand your job. Then also taking care of your body — that’s something that Demaryius taught me my rookie year and something that I still take to my career to this day. Take care of your body, because you only get one.”