The Path to a WR1 Fantasy Season: Courtland Sutton
It’s a pleasure to be part of this series which is now in its fourth year of finding some undervalued potential WR1s. The concept is simple: pick and a player who is ranked outside of the top-15 wide receivers in Andy, Mike, and Jason’s initial rankings as discussed on the podcast.
Courtland Sutton is an intriguing physical specimen at 6’4″, 218 lbs. running a 4.54 40-time. He was drafted out of SMU by the Broncos in the second round (40th overall) to be an alpha-type WR. For fantasy, there are some encouraging thresholds and markers to point towards ascension to WR1-status. Let’s go on a journey of recapping Sutton’s 2019 season, his statistical benchmarks, and ultimately locate the likelihood that he finishes inside the top-12.
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2019 Season Recap
Sutton entered 2019 as an up-and-coming young WR with some touting him as a sleeper as a double-digit round guy (11.05) and the 49th WR off the board according to Fantasy Football Calculator. He more than paid off his draft price establishing himself as the primary passing option in Denver as Emmanuel Sanders returned from an Achilles injury and was shipped out of town to San Francisco late in the season.[lptw_table id=”163568″ style=”default”]
In terms of fantasy finish, he took a major leap despite the porous QB play. Broncos QBs had a 92.4 QB Rating when targeting Sutton, a putrid 53rd among WRs. According to PlayerProfiler.com, his QBs flushed him down the toilet putting him 89th in target accuracy, as in 89th among WRs in terms of the quality of targets he was seeing. What 2019 told us is that Sutton can succeed in the NFL despite the X-position for WRs slowly being downplayed due to the emergence of teams preferring 3-WR sets and quick-twitch players with multiple skillsets.
The Path for 2020
In order for Sutton to take the next step and finish as a WR1, there are a number of statistical benchmarks he must meet to become truly an elite fantasy option.
Target Share- This likely will go under-the-radar, but Sutton was elite in terms of target share in 2019. At 25.9 percent, it was the sixth-highest among WRs, ahead of bigger fantasy names such as Julio Jones, Amari Cooper, and Chris Godwin. Now the downside is that Denver’s passing volume was 27th in the league averaging just 31.5 attempts per game between a trio of Joe Flacco, Brandon Allen, and rookie Drew Lock. To put that number in perspective, the Broncos averaged 31.2 attempts per game in 1983, John Elway‘s rookie year.
Regardless of which way you see it, a 26 percent share is significant especially for someone just 24 years old. The competition will be more contentious for dominance in 2020 with the drafting of first-round rookie Jerry Jeudy, a second-year for TE Noah Fant, and free-agent addition Melvin Gordon. A 20 percent share seems like his floor so landing somewhere between 24 to 26 percent and ending up within the top-10 among WRs is well within reach. For Denver, that is looking close to 130 targets, a solid number to work with for Sutton.
Catch Rate- Not to beat a dead horse, but the targets Sutton saw were less than stellar but his catch rate of 58.1 percent is nothing to shy away for someone running his type of routes. Anything below 60 percent is honestly shaving off someone’s ceiling if they are seeing 100+ targets. But catch rate isn’t the stickiest of stats year-to-year. In fact, two WR1s last year (Mike Evans and Devante Parker) saw worse catch rates than Sutton. It’s a stat that depends on the volume and how close to the line of scrimmage a player is on their routes. It makes sense Michael Thomas, Cooper Kupp, and Chris Godwin end up around 70+ percent. If Sutton hits near 60 percent, he’ll be fine.
Receptions– Based on his first two years, Sutton doesn’t profile as someone who could hover near the league leaders in this category. The type of routes he runs and the player that looks to be peppered as the target machine is rookie Jerry Jeudy. But what reception total does he realistically need to be in the WR1 range? Last year, we saw four WR1s finish with less than 80 catches, not a far cry from Sutton’s 72.
Pat Shurmur was named as the new offensive coordinator and based on his past tendencies, there should be an uptick in passing volume. The Broncos ran the ball 43 percent of the time last year, 9th highest in the league. I expect another 50-60 pass attempts, which may not sound like a lot; but it puts Denver around 35+ pass attempts per game, a middling number in the league. If Sutton finishes anywhere north of 80 receptions, he is cooking!
Yards– This is where Sutton makes his money. With nine games over 70 yards, Sutton was a consistent force ending with 1,112 receiving yards in 2019 despite the menagerie of QBs throwing to him. He finished 9th in Yards Per Route Run and 10th in Air Yards, which is also a feat given the fact Denver QBs had an adjusted yards per attempt of 6.5, a bottom-5 mark in the league and basically a poo-stain on the passing corps. But the dude just wracks up yards and at this point in his career, you can’t ignore what type of company he finds himself in. Since 1990, only 14 WRs have averaged 15+ yards per reception on 200+ targets through the first two seasons in the NFL… and Sutton is one of them coming in 9th at 15.93 behind Julio Jones and slightly ahead of DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Evans, and Allen Robinson.
Sutton seems to be the prototypical X-receiver with size and athleticism blend capable of bodying defenders not only in the end zone but also shielding defenders on nine and post routes. According to our Reception Perception data, Sutton has been a superb executor of the dig route. He has essentially replaced Demaryius Thomas and the role that he presented in Denver for years. 1,000 yards seems to be his floor with the highest range being somewhere north of 1,350 if all things break right.
TDs– This is where Sutton could shine. Recently on the podcast, the Footballers discussed players that could reach double-digit TDs in 2020. Count Sutton among the handful of players with the physical tools to dominate in the paint. Sutton totaled six TDs last year but based on expectation, he was supposed to be more around 8.3 according to Pro Football Focus, making him an underachiever for 2019.
While predicting TDs is not a straight forward process, there were a number of promising metrics within Sutton’s profile that could lead you to believe there will be more end zone celebrations coming. He ranked ninth in red-zone targets (20) including nine 10-zone targets, the same number as Michael Thomas. As former writer Keaton Denlay pointed out, a ten-zone target is more than 2.5 times more valuable than a red zone target that comes between the 20 and the 10. On the high end, Sutton can reach ten TDs but that will depend on Drew Lock’s efficiency and where he looks near the red zone.
WR1 Possibility: Low (25%)
This percentage is based upon the combined average of the Fantasy Footballers writing staff. To put this in perspective, Michael Thomas is probably more like a 90% chance given his consistency, volume, and lack of injury history. A guy like Cole Beasley is probably at about 2%. Keep in mind that in order for players like Sutton to jump into the top-12, you’ll be kicking out studs or assuming regression hits for the elites.
As a dynasty owner of Courtland Sutton, I’m licking my chops moving into 2020 as he has the makings of a bonafide WR1 in the league. For fantasy purposes, his path to WR1-ville is wholly dependent on Drew Lock taking a step forward as a competent, capable volume passer. The Broncos’ formula for success seems bent on trusting their defense, their running game, and their young QB to not turn the ball over. In late May, Sutton is being drafted as the 17th WR off the board so you should have the luxury of starting him as your WR2 with the upside built in to move up five or so spots by the end of the year.