NFL Draft analysis: wide receivers — Courtland Sutton

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DENTON, Texas (KNTU) Continuing my analysis of NFL 2018 Draft candidates, this week I will break down who I believe are the five best draft-eligible wide receivers. Here is my #5 receiver: Courtland Sutton, Wide Receiver, Southern Methodist University (SMU) — 6’4 “/ 216lbs — (RS) Junior #16

  • Who is He?

If you’re a fan of North Texas football, you’re probably familiar with Sutton. In three career games against North Texas, the SMU wide receiver racked up 17 catches for 390 yards and eight touchdowns while averaging a ridiculous 22.9 yards per catch.

A fascinating fact about Sutton is that he’s only been playing wide receiver for three years. He was recruited as a safety from Brenham High School near College Station and only played three games at defensive back as a freshman before an ankle injury ended his season, forcing him to take a redshirt year.

After the injury, Sutton made the permanent switch to wide receiver. In the three years that followed, he tallied 31 touchdowns, which is second most in school history behind Emmanuel Sanders’ 34. Sanders did it in 295 receptions; Sutton did it in 195.

Along with his massive frame, Sutton’s main selling point is that he’s one of the most athletic players in this year’s draft class. But despite that athleticism, Sutton is still a work-in-progress.

  • Positives

Sutton is a deep threat with the size and strength to get big at the catch point. On deep routes, he shows a good understanding of leverage and how to manipulate his man, often stemming his routes in one direction with the goal of giving himself the ability to break into space.

He also does well against press coverage, using proper footwork, controlling the corner’s hips, and employing active hands to make sure he doesn’t get jammed or run out of the play. His catch radius is enormous.

In the short and intermediate passing game, Sutton offers a diverse route tree. His technique on digs and other routes in the 10-20 yard range could use some work, but he has shown that he can drop his weight at the top of his stem on short routes such as hitches, curls, and comebacks. His ability to use his weight leads me to believe he’ll be able to improve his intermediate route running with proper coaching in the NFL.

Sutton’s best quality may be what he does after the catch. Tall wide receivers with Sutton’s open field talent aren’t easy to find. He’s sudden and strong with the ball in his hands, making him a scoring threat every time he’s targeted.

  • Negatives

Sutton’s hands are his biggest question mark. He catches with his chest much of the time and, despite being active with his body at the point of the catch, he’s not always reliable with his hands. He doesn’t attack the ball as it arrives or extend his arms. Instead, he stays passive and lets the ball come to him.

When he does get active at the catch point, his technique is below average. During his sophomore season (2016), he showed that he has problems with both his ball tracking and hands, failing to face his palms to the ball as it arrived. He cleaned up most of his ball tracking issues during his junior year (2017), but his left hand remains an issue.

When he uses active hands, he often shows just the palm of his right hand to the ball and keep his left hand parallel to–or even underneath–it. He has the ability to high point the ball with an impressive vertical jump, but instances of him doing this are few. He prefers to look the ball in and catch it underhanded, something he won’t be able to get away with on deep passes in the NFL.

These are problems that can be coached, which is why I don’t see them as huge red flags. And as I mentioned above, he’s only been playing wide receiver for three years.

  • Summary

Sutton is still a developing player, but there’s a lot to like about him. Although his technique is unrefined, he has a very high ceiling. I don’t think he’s one of the best 32 players in the draft and he has a long way to go to become a first option wide receiver in the NFL. But he’s a physical specimen, and regardless of talent or readiness, NFL general managers have a history of choosing eye-popping talent with his kind of raw ability early in the draft.

  • Relevance to the Cowboys

It became clear midway through the 2017 season that Dez Bryant is no longer a premier receiver for the Cowboys. If Dallas cuts Bryant this offseason, it would cost them nearly $8 million in dead money against the salary cap for the 2018 season.

If Dallas cuts Terrance Williams instead, it would cost them $7.25 million in dead money. The Cowboys only have approximately $19 million in free cap space, which Dallas will likely allocate to re-signing unrestricted free agents Demarcus Lawrence, David Irving, and Anthony Hitchens.

As an alternative to cutting big money players or trying to acquire a big name in free agency, the Cowboys could address the position in the draft, but they’d need to do it in the early rounds.

I think 19th overall is too high for Sutton. He has the potential to become an elite wide receiver, but NFL teams typically draft in the early rounds based on a player’s floor rather than their ceiling. However, if Sutton were still available when the Cowboys are on the clock in the second round, I would certainly pick him.

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