Did the Denver Broncos retire Emmanuel Sanders? If so, we didn’t get the memo.
On Tuesday, as the Broncos descended on Dove Valley to begin the first Offseason Training Program of the Vic Fangio era, we got to hear from second-year wide receiver Courtland Sutton.
Lost in the excitement of hearing from Broncos players for the first time since the end of the disappointing 2018 season, and the news that Chris Harris, Jr. was missing in action from these voluntary OTAs, was the bomb Sutton dropped with regard to the 2019 wide receiver depth chart. Spoiler: Sanders is not No. 1.
“I’m excited going into this season knowing that I am going to get to be the No. 1 and I’ll get all of [those] looks and all of the pressure,” Sutton said on Tuesday following OTAs. “I’m excited about that. I want my teammates to look to me as that leader and that guy that is going to assume that role and take it and go with it as long as I possibly can.”
Emmanuel Sanders is supposed to be the de-facto No. 1 receiver in Denver. Entering his 10th NFL season, Sanders is a two-time Pro Bowler with three 1,000-yard receiving seasons under his belt as a Bronco.
The 32-year-old was having one of the best individual seasons of his career last year before the injury bug struck, and sapped him of the remaining four games on the schedule. Still, 12 games in, Sanders had hauled in 71 receptions for 868 yards and four touchdowns.
He also pulled off the rare trifecta of having scored touchdowns as a receiver, a passer and as a rusher. With Sanders’ recovery from the torn Achilles reportedly ahead of schedule, the Broncos exercised the option on his 2019 contract, which cost the team $1.5 million.
Meanwhile, Sutton produced a solid if unspectacular rookie campaign, hauling in 42 receptions for 704 yards and four scores. It was the fourth-best rookie season for a rookie wideout in Broncos’ history.
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Based on resume and experience — and wherewithal, frankly — Emmanuel Sanders should be grandfathered the No. 1 spot on the Broncos’ depth chart. But in what was perhaps a Freudian slip, or perhaps just simply an unconscious lapse, Courtland Sutton stated publicly that in his second year, the team apparently expects him to be WR1.
I’d be curious to know what Sanders thinks of this. And in fairness, it could have been that Sutton was simply speaking of a mindset he has, viewing himself as the No. 1 receiver. But as an experienced analyst who’s been covering this team for seven years, that’s honestly not how I interpreted Sutton’s remark.
To me, it sounds like the Broncos have informed Sutton and the offense that he’ll be No. 1 on the depth chart. If true, its a curious decision by the team, as Sutton struggled to produce as the WR1 over the final four games of the 2018 season, after Sanders had been lost to injury.
In two of those four games, Sutton was held to two receptions or less. On Tuesday, Sutton talked about the lessons he learned from being the WR1 down the stretch, and how they’ll inform and fuel him in his second year.
But its also worth mentioning that this could simply be semantics. Since Sanders arrived in Denver back in 2014, he was the ‘Z’ receiver to Demaryius Thomas’ ‘X.’ The Z lines up as the flanker on the weakside of the formation, while the X lines up outside on the strongside.
As a prospect, Sutton projected as an X and that’s how the Broncos viewed him when the team spent the 40th overall selection in the 2018 NFL Draft on him — as the successor to Thomas at the X position. Thomas was traded to the Houston Texans ahead of Week 9, which ushered in the beginning of the Sutton-as-a-starter era in Denver.
Without hearing from new offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello or Vic Fangio, we can’t confirm that Sutton will indeed be ‘the No. 1’. However, the next time Fangio is made available to the media, I’m sure the topic will be broached in no time flat.
Meanwhile, according to Sutton, his relationship with Sanders continues to be on firm footing. The 6-foot-4 receiver was elated to hear that Sanders was in fact returning for 2019.
“I was excited. Emmanuel is a great leader and a great vet for our room,” Sutton said on Tuesday. “I love being able to be around him. I was actually just talking to him a little bit in the locker room just about how exciting it is for this new offense. He was telling me how he’s played in similar offenses and he’s already starting to give me some of the insights of what he learned being in this type of offense before. Just something like that is awesome. I’ve never been an offense like Coach Rich’s (Offensive Coordinator Rich Scangarello).
“Having someone like Emmanuel who has been in something similar and being able to break it down and help me understand the nuances of this offense and the benefits that come from being able to maximize certain things in this offense, I’m excited and I know he is really excited as well.”
I won’t put on the tinfoil hat and extrapolate any additional meaning behind Sutton’s public declaration that he’s the new No. 1 receiver. But I’d understand if some fans might wonder what it means for Sanders’ future in Denver.
Sanders’ 2019 salary is $10.15M, of which the Broncos guaranteed $1.5M by picking up his option. The team could save $8.75M on the salary cap by releasing him and even more by trading him. Keep that as a feather in your cap as we get closer to the 2019 draft.
However, its worth pointing out that if the Broncos truly want Joe Flacco to succeed in Denver, they’d be remiss to put all their eggs in the Courtland Sutton basket. Nothing against Sutton, as he’s an extremely talented young player with an enormous ceiling — but when Flacco has been at his best as a pro, he was throwing to proven veterans like Steve Smith, Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith.
There’s no question in my mind that Emmanuel Sanders’ presence on the Broncos’ roster gives Flacco the best possible chance to succeed and hit the ground running in Denver. However, with Sanders’ timetable to return to action up in the air, due to that Achilles injury, all bets are off.
Maybe that’s why Courtland Sutton is operating as the No. 1 — because Sanders is still recovering from his injury and isn’t back to 100 percent quite yet. But then again, the Broncos aren’t even practicing yet. In Phase One of OTAs, all Denver can do is work out in the gym and spend time in the classroom learning their new systems and technique, and watching film.