ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Before Courtland Sutton had caught a pass in the NFL, those who are paid to evaluate the future were mining every nugget of information about him to gauge his future as a professional.
He had size (6-foot-3, 213 pounds), speed (4.54 40-yard dash at the NFL combine) and pursued the ball with zeal. But as Sutton walks to midfield Sunday with the captain's C on his Denver Broncos jersey for the first time in his 33-game career, it's clear there was more to find in those reports. It wasn't just what Sutton did with the ball in his hands, it was also his character that made him a rare prospect.
During Sutton's final season at SMU -- 2017 -- scouts came away with one particular story while researching him. It was the kind of story they didn't share with each other, one they kept for draft meetings, the trump card they slap on top of all the video, when they not only trust their eyes, but their hearts.
Just before the start of his senior year, Sutton stayed after one August practice to catch some additional passes. After the other players had gone, Sutton saw the team's strength coach, Trumain Carroll -- "Coach Tru" as Sutton calls him -- picking up an assortment of tape players had cut off of their hands and wrists, as well as cups and plastic bottles, all tossed absent-mindedly into the grass.
Sutton, those who saw it say, stayed and helped Carroll pick up all the items. And the next day, when players departed, the grass was clear. Sutton had spoken. He did it out of sight, but delivered a message to his teammates, and they followed his lead by putting every item in its proper place.
"Stuff all around the field, that's not right, take care of the people who take care of you," Sutton said recently. "Winning teams don't have stuff all over the field, winning teams just don't toss things in the grass like they don't care. Because you just toss things in the grass, you don't run every rep like you should either because you already showed you'll take the shortcut.
"I didn't think it was right, I know it wasn't right, it had to be corrected. It's cool somebody told you that, really cool. But I think it is just part of winning, it goes into the character of the team ... we have a sign here, you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat people who can't do anything for them. That's just kind of my philosophy on it, we shouldn't make it harder for people who are here to help us win."
That sentiment is why those inside the Broncos' complex think so highly of Sutton, despite a 2020 season that ended with a left knee injury. He suffered the ACL tear trying to make a tackle against the Pittsburgh Steelers after a Jeff Driskel interception during Week 2.
Since then, Sutton has waited for Sunday's game against the New York Giants (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox) to come, and not always patiently either. After a 1,000-yard season in 2019 established him as a top receiver in the league, Sutton has used the word "angst" in recent weeks when asked to describe the road to getting back onto the field simply because he missed the game so much.
"Court is a guy, in terms of technique, footwork, the nuts and bolts of everything, who has come a long way, just if you step back and look at him, as a receiver, when he first came into the league and now," Broncos wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni said. "But Court the person? Tough, wants to be better, does things right, accountable, and willing to lead.
"As a coach you can take a young group and be more active in that regard, or maybe you're new and they're just getting to know you and you're setting the level of expectation, but ultimately you need guys who lead with performance and effort and approach. You need somebody like Court."
Sunday's opener against the Giants is the first test of improvement, particularly for the Broncos' offense. The team has not averaged more than 22.5 points per game since 2014 when quarterback Peyton Manning finished second in the league with 39 touchdown passes. In 2020 the Broncos led the league in interceptions, in giveaways overall and had the worst turnover margin. Denver used three different starting quarterbacks last season and did not have a wide receiver finish among the league's top 69 in receptions.
Losing Sutton in Week 2 was certainly part of that equation.
"The offense was really young last year," general manager George Paton said. "They lost their voice in Courtland Sutton and their juice. He means so much to this team."
Sutton's teammates have watched him grind, push and power through his injury rehab, sometimes with the team's medical staff trying to reel him in. They expect Sutton to return to the path of an elite receiver -- the one he was decidedly on before his injury.
Sutton played in one of the Broncos' three preseason games, and while he made an 8-yard touchdown reception against the Rams, it was a 19-yard completion earlier in the game that may have proven he's back.
On that route, Sutton drove powerfully off his surgically-repaired left leg for the kind of route precision Broncos cornerback Ronald Darby has called "really, really hard to defend."
"The ball he caught on the sideline -- he ran a really good route that took a lot of plant and drive on his knee," Broncos coach Vic Fangio said. "He's been a little reluctant to do that consistently on the practice field. He's done it, but to get to see him to do it in a game was great to see for everybody, was really good for his confidence."
Like Sutton, many of the team's core players have yet to wear a Broncos jersey in a playoff game. During those five consecutive playoff misses, not everybody has wanted to be at the front of the line when it isn't going well, but Sutton said he has gladly accepted the heavy lifting it takes to change a team's fortunes.
After all, picking up the pieces is part of winning, too.
"Do it right, every day, every time," Sutton said. "Every time and that means every single time. That's how it is. How it should be."