Reception Perception: Courtland Sutton & Managing the Alien of This Class
Courtland Sutton enters the scene as something of an alien in this draft class. He’s one of the few wideouts at the top of the board who brings plus-size and athleticism along with a strong collegiate resume. In a class stocked to the brim with potential slot and flanker receivers who win with route-running over size, it’s easy to see why Sutton draws the intrigue of evaluators across the spectrum. Teams and individual observers on the outside are obsessed with upside, even if they don’t know how to define it. The pursuit of it leads them to Sutton, who checks the typical boxes for what the football world has deemed you need to access a ceiling.
When you look back through the last few draft classes, the players who “look the part” of the upside model at wide receiver have, at best, been on a slow burn to pay back the draft equity used to acquire their services. The players who brought strong technique and/or found new-age roles as big slot receivers have found their way to relevancy at a much faster pace.
Of course, none of this is meant to place Sutton on a watchlist for players who won’t work out at the next level. Far from it. However, Reception Perception is designed to contextualize how these type of big athletic wideouts win on the field and go beyond the obvious traits.
Alignment & Target Data
Games sampled: TCU, Connecticut, Houston, Cincinnati, UCF, Louisiana Tech
As mentioned, Sutton is many people’s top projection at the X-receiver position. He played that spot on the majority of his snaps in the games sampled for Reception Perception. Sutton lined up outside right on 44.8 percent of his charted snaps and outside left on 38.7 percent. He was on the line of scrimmage for 72.9 percent of his snaps.
Sutton was a high volume receiver at SMU, drawing a target on 30.9 percent of his charted routes. He dropped just three passes (4.7 percent drop rate) throughout his sampled games despite some concerns from scouts that he lets the ball into his body.
Success Rate vs. Coverage
Courtland Sutton is clearly athletic. Whether you want to conclude that by way of his freaky 6.57-second three-cone drill time at 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds or simply watching him play, it’s tough to argue it’s reality. However, as we’ve seen from the last few draft classes, being big and athletic is not the secret sauce to success at the position. That mixture lies somewhere in the blending of technique.
Sutton posted a 69.1 percent success rate vs. man coverage, which rests at the 56th percentile among prospects charted over the last three classes. He tested out at the 66th percentile (79.4 percent) against zone coverage. Those scores aren’t elite but they’re far from damning, either.
The most concerning result from Sutton’s Reception Perception was his 60 percent success rate vs. press coverage. Sutton fell at the 36th percentile in this metric. He saw just 35 press attempts in a conference where tight physical coverage is rare to find but it was concerning that he didn’t show out in small viewings.
For the sake of comparison, it’s important to look back at Corey Davis’ Reception Perception results. Davis carries a similar build to Sutton and was generally regarded as a good athlete despite never going through an offseason workout prior to getting drafted. Just like Sutton, he played at a lower level of competition but absolutely smashed his opponents. Davis tested at the 94th and 76th percentile in success rate vs. man and press coverage, respectively.
The success rate vs. coverage scores reveal the area Sutton needs to improve in the most to be a starting-caliber NFL receiver and it’s a big one. Sutton is a technically raw route-runner and it’s difficult to get around that. If a team wants to draft him and have him operate as their top outside X-receiver, he’ll have to mature as a technician, especially on his releases from the line of scrimmage. If he doesn’t, it won’t matter how big and fast he is despite traditional scouts and coaches annually drooling over these attributes simply because they can’t be taught.
One last note: I rarely include the double coverage notes in these profiles because the number of plays where a receiver is truly “double covered” are so infrequent. However, for Sutton, it’s worth including. He saw double coverage on 28 routes, the most in this class, and posted a 53.6 percent success rate. His success rank ranks fifth among prospects charted who saw 20 or more attempts against double coverage.
As is always the case, breaking down a prospect’s success rate vs. coverage scores is best done in the context of the routes they performed best on. We certainly learn more about Sutton when going through this exercise.
Sutton’s primary assignment SMU tasked him with running vertical routes. He checked in at the prospect average rate for the post, nine, corner and deep out patterns. It makes sense to use a player with his size and speed combination to threaten a defense down the field. However, deep routes carry lower success rates, which certainly contributed to his marks against man and zone being below the 70th percentile.
In the intermediate area, Sutton ran a curl route on 19.3 percent of his charted routes, a rate above the NFL average. This also fits with a player of his frame, as he can use his body at the top of the route to shield defenders from the ball.
Despite all of his use on vertical patterns, Sutton checked in just average on the nine route and scored poorly on the post and out. His 77 percent success rate on corners was a strong mark, however. While Sutton can be a chore to cover in the deep game simply because he can out-stride smaller defenders, he doesn’t have the needed technical nuance to untangle himself on those routes.
When we look into the short to intermediate areas of the route tree, we see some more positive results for Sutton. He scored out above the average on the slant, curl and dig. The curl success rate (77.8 percent) is the most important to me. Not only is a highly used route at the NFL level and a good fit for his box-out style, I’ve noticed good route runners often excel in this pattern. Sutton doesn’t fit into that group yet, but considering he ran the curl at a high rate with good success, we can take this is as a good sign.
Some of his success rate vs. coverage metrics and route data invite questions about his ability to be a Day 1 starter and implies a learning curve, there is no doubt he can be an asset as a playmaker. Some of the ancillary metrics in Reception Perception help quantify that.
Despite his size, Sutton rarely saw chances in contested situations in the games sampled for Reception Perception. Just 10.9 percent of his targets registered as a contested catch attempt, placing him in the neighborhood of a slot receiver like Christian Kirk (9.8 percent). Yet, when Sutton got chances to win 50/50 balls, he showed well. Sutton converted on 71.4 percent of his contested catch attempts. We can consider this a strength of his game and he’s tough to beat out at the catch point when he’s at his best.
The most interesting part of Sutton’s game was his ability in space. When he builds up a head of steam and gets his strides roll in the open field, Sutton is capable of shedding defenders’ tackle attempts with ease. Sutton was out “in space” with a chance to break a tackle after the catch on 6.8 percent of his routes. He went down on first contact on just 21.4 percent of those plays. The prospect average is 49 percent. Sutton broke multiple tackles on a whopping 35.7 percent of his in space attempts, putting him second over the last three classes behind only YAC-dynamo Carlos Henderson (39.6 percent).
The temptation will be real for an NFL team to take Courtland Sutton with Alshon Jeffery in mind and make him their top perimeter X-receiver from Day 1. The drugs of size and speed will do that to obsessive evaluators.
Reception Perception paints the picture of a far different player. This is a prospect who needs seasoning; there’s no getting around the fact that he’s a technically raw player. He could improve as a craftsman and would be downright dangerous if he does. However, early in his career, we shouldn’t be shocked if he gets off to a slow start.
While the team who drafts Sutton waits for that marinating to take place, there are enough trump cards in his arsenal to construct a role for him right away. Sutton gets decent separation on in-breaking routes and is a dynamic athlete out in space. A team can deploy Sutton in that specific fashion early and reap early benefits.
We’ve seen an all-star receiver develop in exactly this fashion recently. The Denver Broncos had to wait years for Demaryius Thomas to be a starting-caliber route runner and still to this day, despite all his athletic gifts, he’s not a consistent separator. However, Denver found ways for Thomas to thrive by minimizing the route assignments they gave him and maximizing his chances to show off his trump cards, most notably with the ball in his hands. It’s a player comparison other analysts have given out and it fits so well with the expectations that should come with how Sutton should be developed.
If a team gets this one right and understands what they’re drafting, they’ll have acquired a strong asset in Courtland Sutton. It’s just about managing expectations and creating the proper calendar for when to harness his talents. The question we’ll have to ask ourselves this time next week is how much we trust the team that takes him to figure that out.
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