Scouting Notebook: Courtland Sutton: WR, SMU

08/29/2017
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Who will be the top wide receiver drafted next year? Some people think Oklahoma State’s James Washington will follow his quarterback Mason Rudolph in the first round in April. Middle Tennessee State’s Richie James is a diminutive 5’9″ and 180 pounds, but after two seasons, the junior already has a massive resume of 213 catches, 2971 yards, and 20 receiving touchdowns. Others are expecting monster years out of underclassmen like Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk or Notre Dame’s Equanimeous St. Brown. With those names in mind, you’d be remiss if you weren’t buying a healthy number of shares in Southern Methodist’s star receiver Courtland Sutton.

Sutton redshirted his first season in 2014, then took over SMU’s passing game the very next year. As a redshirt freshman he dominated, posting 49 catches, 862 yards, and 9 touchdowns. The next-best receiver on the team hit 23/258/2. In all, as a 19/20 year old he owned 24 percent of SMU’s catches, 33 percent of receiving yards, and 47 percent of receiving touchdowns. The next season was even more exciting — a 76/1246/10 receiving slash with an even more impressive share of the team’s stats: 31 percent of catches, 39 percent of yards, and 45 percent of touchdowns. When the Mustangs want a big play, they turn to Sutton.

Six-foot-four and he plays like it

Size is a useful trait for a receiver. Long-limbed players can mitigate mistakes in accuracy, hauling in passes from beyond the sideline or ten feet in the air. It’s not necessarily a difference-maker, though. Even more important is to have the aggressive, physical style you’d expect to see from a player who stands (literally) head and shoulders above his opponents. If players aren’t willing and able to elbow aside a couple of defenders to vacuum up a contested catch, then they might as well be five-foot-eleven. Since 2000, 88 receivers standing six-foot-four or taller have attended the NFL Combine. Only eight of those players ever hit 1,000 yards receiving, and you’ll know them by name: Plaxico Burress, Marques Colston, Brandon Marshall, Calvin Johnson, Vincent Jackson, A.J. Green, Kelvin Benjamin, and Mike Evans. With the exception of Colston (who was a train arriving, unerringly, to the destination of a pass from Drew Brees) and Green (who has mastered flexibility in his route running and catching process), every one of these players was a tough S.O.B. who would knock you to the ground while catching a pass, then plaster you again for good measure once he started running to the end zone.

Sutton is sqarely in that same vein. He measures in at 6’4″ and 215 pounds, and he throws that size around on the field. Sutton has strong hands and great concentration, allowing him to make difficult catches in traffic. Against East Carolina, watch how he snatches the ball away for a touchdown even as the cornerback tries to break up the pass and a safety approaches for a hit:

https://streamable.com/22oxm

 

Another trait Sutton has in common with receivers like Mike Evans: his tendency to use subtle push-offs to earn space at the top of his stem. Larger receivers aren’t especially fast (unless they’re named Calvin Johnson), and a well-placed nudge can knock a cornerback off-balance or buy 18 inches of real estate to build a pocket for the incoming throw. Too much force, though, and the receiver becomes a penalty machine.

Check out how Sutton runs his route on this run-pass option (RPO) play against Baylor. He starts with a head of steam, but when the cornerback is still stuck to him, Sutton gives a slight push as he’s running out his four step turnaround. The cornerback ends up flat on the ground, with hardly any effort from Sutton.

https://streamable.com/lda3n

 

Route-running refinement

A size receiver who can make plays in the red zone is a nice situational piece to have on the roster, but if he’s going to become a reliable starter, then he needs an upgrade on the spectrum. Either the receiver should double down on physicality, a la Kelvin Benjamin, or he needs to learn to run nuanced routes that can get him open around the field.

At SMU, Sutton is mainly dangerous on two types of routes: sideline patterns like comebacks, and routes that come up the seam near the hash marks. He has enough deep speed to force a transition out of a backpedal, and he can stop very quickly when it’s time to catch a pass. Watch him on this route against Baylor:

https://streamable.com/87ppi

 

Sutton’s running with a head of steam, eyes pointed downfield. That keeps the cornerback guessing whether he’s headed deep or cutting the route off short. Eight yards into his route Sutton executes a turn, and he’s fully in position one yard beyond that point in half a second. That agility is unusual for a player with Sutton’s stature.

Sutton is familiar with using his eyes and head to trick cornerbacks. On this deep touchdown against Baylor, watch how he flummoxes a defensive back by looking to the left before cutting back inside on the post.

https://streamable.com/hgr2z

 

Southern Methodist’s offense doesn’t exactly have Sutton run a varied tree. There are go routes, posts, hitches and comebacks, and the occasional screen pass. He has 20-50 new routes to master when he enters the NFL. In a similar manner, SMU doesn’t ask him to do very much blocking on the perimeter. He’ll sometimes give a strong effort when the play runs to his direction, but he’s used to jogging toward the sideline to draw a cornerback in college, something he won’t get away with in the pros. Despite the areas he needs to further develop, the details he puts in his routes suggest that he’ll be prepared when he hits the next level of football.

 

Open when he isn’t

Raw physicality and dynamic route running are two key receiver traits, but the one that earns thousands of reaction GIFs, tweets, and highlight impressions is the most core trait for a receiver – the ability to make a catch, no matter how difficult, without breaking concentration. Sutton integrates his physical traits just like a top receiving prospect should when catching the ball, and he can stick to passes even in highly stressful situations.

I’ll leave you with this spectacular catch Sutton made on a fade route against Houston. He didn’t have much room to work in the end zone, but with a defender in his face Sutton was able to track the ball, safely corral it, and solidly plant a foot inbounds for the touchdown catch.

https://streamable.com/t7o7w

 

Possible Bills fit

The Buffalo Bills’ receiving corps underwent tremendous upheaval during the 2017 offseason. Buffalo spent a second round pick on Zay Jones, who became an immediate starter on the team. With Sammy Watkins traded, new arrival Jordan Matthews earned a “starting” role playing predominantly in the slot, and Andre Holmes is slated to start on the outside. Matthews is a free agent in 2018, and Holmes, who averaged 22.5 yards per game in his career, isn’t a reliable option for the team. Let’s face it: the Bills could use receiving talent on this team moving forward.

If the Bills drafted Sutton, then they’d immediately upgrade at wide receiver. He gives them a big body that can dominate on comeback routes and back-shoulder fades, and fits the mold the team showed a preference for when they picked players like the 6’4″ 210 pound Holmes or 6’3″ 200 pound Rod Streater. Sutton’s also advancing as a route runner, showing traits that will suit him well when navigating zone coverage and separating from man coverage. If the team’s already addressed a top need with one first round pick, they might just be inclined to get a receiver with the second.

 

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