Extension Candidate: Courtland Sutton

Having fully transitioned at wide receiver following the in-season trades of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, the Broncos have assembled an interesting group of pass catchers. Denver’s quartet consists of a first-rounder (Jerry Jeudy), two second-rounders (Courtland Sutton, K.J. Hamler) and a contract-year UDFA (Tim Patrick) — all tied to rookie contracts or an RFA tender.

Joining Patrick in entering a contract year, Sutton is in line to be the first Broncos wideout to sign a lucrative extension since Sanders’ September 2016 re-up. A Sutton deal would top Thomas’ five-year, $70MM pact as the richest the Broncos have given a receiver. But a few factors complicate the 25-year-old playmaker’s status going into his fourth season, making him one of the more interesting 2021 extension candidates.

Sutton’s rookie-year form prompted the Broncos to trade Thomas, and the SMU product built on that in 2019. Despite Denver using three starting QBs in Sutton’s second year, the jump-ball standout served as the top weapon in an offense lacking other notable targets. The 6-foot-4 pass catcher’s 72-reception, 1,112-yard season — with an aging Joe Flacco, rookie Drew Lock and inexperienced backup Brandon Allen targeting him — garnered a Pro Bowl nod and opened the door to the prospect of an extension.

The Broncos then became the first team since the 2003 Cardinals to select receivers in the first and second rounds of a draft, but Sutton’s ACL tear — after just 31 snaps — changed the club’s plans to have the draftees develop in a Sutton-centered attack. Denver will now give its hopeful Sutton-Jeudy-Hamler trio, with Patrick mixing in, another try.

Since Sutton’s injury, the Broncos hired a new GM. But George Paton identified Sutton as a core player the Broncos want to keep around long-term. They have an opening for a veteran receiver contract, with Jeudy and Hamler not extension-eligible for a while and only one skill-position player — Melvin Gordon, whose roster spot may not be assured — making midlevel money. Sutton’s production with suboptimal quarterback play points to untapped potential for when/if the Broncos acquire a long-term passer.

Waiting makes some sense for both parties. Sutton is not expected to begin camp on the active/PUP list and will be on track to lead or co-lead Denver’s receiving corps this season. The Broncos making an offer before they determine Sutton’s fit alongside the younger receivers in Pat Shurmur‘s offense would be a bit of a gamble, but the team could also reap some value if Sutton wanted to lock in a slightly lower AAV now as protection against a sluggish season following ACL rehab. The Broncos certainly have the cap space to do a deal now or in the fall; their $28MM in room ranks behind only the Jaguars.

An in-season extension could be in play, too. That would make for an interesting middle ground — similar to Garett Bolles‘ November 2020 deal — and avoid a situation where this forces the Broncos to use their franchise tag for a third straight year. Of course, if Sutton proves willing to bet on himself going into a post-injury contract year, it would take a big offer to convince him to bypass a potential free agency bid or — in the more likely scenario — the leverage that comes with being tagged.

Sutton picking up where he left off would be a good problem for the Broncos, who have not featured this kind of depth at receiver since the mid-2010s. This has likely caught the attention of Aaron Rodgers, though that situation has produced little of consequence in months. A return to form would put Sutton on the radar to land a deal in the Kenny Golladay range — four years, $72MM — with perhaps some upside from this salary place, as the cap balloons over $200MM after 2021’s dip.

Sutton’s production alongside Jeudy will illustrate how the Broncos view him. With the fifth-year option allowing the Broncos to table Jeudy’s payday — if the impressive route runner proves worthy — until 2024, a window for a Sutton extension should be open. Given the Rodgers connection and the receiving corps’ new look since Sutton’s last full season, his contract status will be monitoring in the coming weeks and/or months.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

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