ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The highlight play of training camp for the Denver Broncos came Aug. 8, and it involved a couple of guys the average fan might expect.
Wide receiver Courtland Sutton went up high over cornerback Ronald Darby to haul in a leaping, hotly contested catch on the final play of practice. He got up, reveled in his offensive teammates running down the field toward him and motioned them all back toward the locker room at the UCHealth Center.
The catch in and of itself was spectacular, but it was also just practice. Wilson and Sutton have both made those types of plays in actual games time and time again in their respective careers.
This particular play, however, even though it happened on a day in early August, might actually have significance for the Broncos in 2022.
Wilson and Sutton have several months' worth of work together banked now. They’ve been through OTAs and training camp plus two stints at Wilson’s house in San Diego along with Denver’s other receivers to build chemistry. Learning each others’ tendencies, preferences and body language is one thing, but then translating it to the field is another step.
“Originally we talk about how people are open in different ways,” head coach Nathaniel Hackett said after Denver’s joint practice with Dallas last week. “I think now Russ is starting to realize that (Sutton) might be open in even more ways than you might think. He’s such a huge man that can run, works hard, attacks the ball.
“He’s started to take some shots even when there’s not that much separation. He’s continuing to test those waters and that’s what you’re seeing there.”
That showed up in the catch over Darby and it showed up throughout the joint practice with the Cowboys. It’s possible neither Wilson nor Sutton will play during the preseason – if they do, it will not be extensively – so the depth of the connection likely will not be tested under true game circumstances until the Broncos open their regular season at the Seahawks on Sept. 12.
“Courtland’s been exceptional,” Wilson added. “He’s got an amazing skill set in terms of his ability to catch the football down the field, but he is extremely, extremely bright. I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen him throw a football, but he could play quarterback if he wanted to. He’s that smart. He takes all the information, he understands what the defense is doing.
“He’s one of the best receivers I’ve seen in terms of understanding the game and what’s going on.”
All the more reason to suspect that Sutton is on the verge of a breakout season. Or, perhaps more accurately, a re-breakout season.
The fifth-year player out of SMU racked up 1,112 yards and six touchdowns on 72 catches in 2019, his second season, but then suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first game of 2020. Sutton was solid last year and finished with 776 yards on 58 catches, showing enough in his return to earn a four-year extension worth up to $60 million ($35 million guaranteed) in November.
“I wasn’t here during his injury, unfortunately, when it happened and he’s been through his ups and downs before in college,” said wide receiver Trey Quinn, who formed an explosive collegiate duo with Sutton at SMU and was on Denver's roster until being waived Tuesday. “Seeing him bounce back, you knew he would do it. Just knowing his mental side of the game and how he attacks every day, you knew he would get back and keep on growing from that.
“It’s exciting to see his growth as a human and as a player.”
Not only is he even further removed from the injury now, but Sutton is also playing with an upper-echelon quarterback for the first time in his career. He’ll be counted on even more than perhaps initially expected after fellow receiver Tim Patrick suffered a torn ACL earlier in camp and is out for the season.
“This poor guy has had four offenses in five years, so learning the intricacies is really going to help him,” said wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni, who is one of the few coaching holdovers under Hackett and has been Sutton’s position coach for his entire NFL career. “The good thing is (Wilson) is wired different, so he’s going to make sure (all of the receivers) coming along with him. There’s not any added responsibility. Courtland knows it’s time for all of us to put it together. He knows that.
“He’s had a bunch of quarterbacks and a bunch of offenses. He’s doing everything No. 3 asks of him. Courtland just goes and plays. He doesn’t feel any pressure on himself at all.”
Even with Patrick’s injury, Wilson shouldn’t have to force-feed the ball to Sutton this fall. Third-year man Jerry Jeudy steps into the No. 2 receiver role, and KJ Hamler continues to work back from hip and knee surgery. Hamler has not taken any team reps since the second week of training camp, but several young receivers have gotten extensive work with the top offense in his stead. Denver also has a potent pair of running backs in Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon and an interesting tight end room that’s made plays so far in camp.
When push comes to shove, though, Sutton is the clear No. 1 option in the passing game and has a chance to establish himself as one of the best receivers in the NFL.
“He’s been amazing,” Wilson said. “It’s just really cool to see how much he’s put into it. His investment into his craft. But his investment into other guys is what I think is really special. He’s really stepped up as a leader, he gets in the front of the line, he pushes guys throughout the meetings, he holds guys accountable, he loves the game and loves his craft and loves his teammates.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Parker Gabriel on Twitter @ParkerJGabriel.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Courtland Sutton, Denver Broncos WR, could be on verge of star turn