ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The biggest improvement from the often-sputtering, turnover-laden offense the Denver Broncos had in 2020 to what’s to come in 2021 didn’t occur in free agency.
It didn’t come in the draft. It walked — or, rather, he walked — right out of the training room. Without a limp and with his internal fire sufficiently stoked.
And to say the Broncos, after watching wide receiver Courtland Sutton go through the team’s offseason program, are robustly ecstatic to see him back would be the mildest of understatements.
“Courtland — you can’t ask for a better man,” said left tackle Garett Bolles. “To come out there and have that injury — he’s so focused and ready to just explode and show the NFL what he has.”
That’s the plan anyway. Sutton, who tore his ACL when trying to make a tackle after a Jeff Driskel interception in a Week 2 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers last September, was a significant participant in the Broncos’ minicamp just before the team adjourned until training camp in late July.
His recovery was a consistent source of offseason optimism for the Broncos, especially when they are poised for yet another training camp quarterback competition for an offense that hasn’t averaged more than 23 points per game since 2014.
Without him last season, the Broncos led the league in overall turnovers and interceptions thrown in a season in which they scored 16 or fewer points seven times and 14 or fewer points four times. Tight end Noah Fant led the team in receptions, and rookie wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, as he tried to get acclimated to NFL life, found himself being covered by a string of No. 1 cornerbacks who would have ordinarily been looking for Sutton.
In the end, the Broncos had just two wide receivers — Jeudy and Tim Patrick — finish with more than 30 receptions, and Patrick was the only Broncos player who had more than three receiving touchdowns.
“We missed him last year, not having him,” said offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. “Certainly, having him back is going to be huge. He was a huge piece of the offense two years ago … certainly we missed him. We’re all thrilled to have him back.”
As minicamp drew to a close, Broncos coach Vic Fangio said Sutton would be monitored when training camp opens, perhaps in the form of a pitch count in practice and preseason. But he fully expects Sutton, who had his first 1,000-yard receiving season in 2018, to be ready to go in the regular season.
Not that it didn’t take effort to make sure Sutton’s rehab stayed on schedule. And that Sutton — a pedal-to-the-metal player who injured a shoulder last September trying to make a leaping grab in a non-contact, practice drill when the quarterbacks were simply warming up before the team stretch — wasn’t trying to do too much too soon.
“I actually had to reel myself back in kind of early,” Sutton said. ” … Once I sat down, I realized that this is the situation I’m in right now. I can’t control that my ACL is torn, and I can’t control that I have to get surgery. However, the thing that I can control is how I attack this rehab … Each day, I had to go in and put the work in if I wanted to ultimately get to the goal I want to get to at the end of the tunnel.”
Linebacker Von Miller, who suffered a torn ACL in December 2013 and returned for a 14-sack season in 2014, was a key voice in Sutton’s recovery. Miller spent plenty of time in the training room with Sutton last year given that Miller was recovering from a season-ending ankle injury he suffered right before the regular season opener.
Miller sent Sutton videos and offered almost minute-by-minute encouragement as the two worked their way back. Miller’s role, Sutton said, is a large reason why Sutton expects to be in uniform Sept. 12 when Denver opens the season against the New York Giants.
“Von was the No. 1 person,” Sutton said. “Being able to have him next to me in the training room was amazing. He actually got me with [Chargers wide receiver] Keenan Allen (who tore his ACL in 2016). One of the videos that Von sent me was a video of Adrian Peterson whenever he tore his ACL. That’s the video I keep on me.
“It was very inspirational … it’s all about how you see the situation and how you see yourself having success and not dwelling on the negatives of anything.”