Broncos' rookie receivers proving they can catch on

The Broncos drafted Courtland Sutton in the fourth round out of SMU. David Zalubowski/AP

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When new receivers enter the league, their success or failure usually comes down to two things.

Can they handle the contact from defensive backs and can they consistently run routes?

The Denver Broncos exited their offseason program with a healthy dose of optimism about what rookie wide receivers Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton might be able to do in the team’s offense in the months to come.

“[Sutton] -- he’s a friendly target and I like throwing him the football,” Broncos quarterback Case Keenum said. “He’s done really, really well. I think he’s come a long way, and I’m excited to throw him the football. DaeSean is just in the right place at the right time. He doesn’t act like a rookie and he’s not playing like a rookie. To have a receiver that you can count on to be in the right place at the right time, that’s always a huge plus.”

Sutton is a 6-foot-3, 218-pound target who made leaping, one-handed catches in a crowd a regular event during the team's spring workouts – “It seemed like he had one every day,” Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said -- and Hamilton showed himself to be the same precise route runner who could close the deal that the Broncos saw at the Senior Bowl.

Sutton is athletic enough to have played a season on SMU’s basketball team. And Hamilton, who the Broncos selected with their second fourth-round pick in April, finished his career as Penn State’s all-time leading receiver, and his attention to detail on the field at the Senior Bowl in January put him squarely on the Broncos’ draft radar.

“Those two guys are going to help us in the fall,” said Broncos coach Vance Joseph. “ ... They’ve both been very mature to go with all of the other things. For [Sutton], it’s that catch radius -- he wins with his body even if he doesn’t win the route. And DaeSean he is a physical guy who is where the quarterbacks want him to be.”

The Broncos are certainly hoping Sutton and Hamilton can break what has been a decidedly unpredictable run at the position for the Broncos. Since 1990, the Broncos have taken 33 receiver, including Sutton and Hamilton, in the draft, including four in the past two years, with Isaiah McKenzie and Carlos Henderson in the 2017 draft.

Among those previous 31 receivers, just five finished their rookie seasons with more than 20 receptions. Only one -- Eddie Royal with 91 receptions and five touchdowns in 2008 -- finished with more than 35 receptions. And 13 finished their rookie seasons without a reception, whether because they were injured, cut or simply didn’t play much.

Last season, Henderson (thumb) spent the year on injured reserve and McKenzie was benched multiple times on the way to four receptions.

Some of the difficulty in recent seasons has been the Broncos’ defensive strength. Denver's secondary has helped lift a defense that has finished in the top five in scoring defense in the five of the past six seasons; and that doesn’t make it easy for a young receiver trying to make a practice-field impression, all while dealing with defensive backs who are far more aggressive than what they are accustomed to and with a far greater variety of routes that they are expected to run.

“You have to kind of practice against Chris [Harris Jr.] and Bradley [Roby] and those guys,” said Denver wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. “They make you better, every day.

"But in college, you’re used to having a lot more room to run when you get to the ball; here, being open is what you would have said was covered in college.”

Which is why Sutton and Hamilton closed out the Broncos’ offseason work with the team’s decision-makers looking for them to contribute in the offense when the regular season begins, should they keep that momentum through training camp and the preseason. That's because they appear to already understand what it will take to get the ball.

“I just feel like no matter what’s going on around me, I’m supposed to make plays,” Sutton said. “ ... No matter what happens, I’m supposed to make a play after that. That’s how I’m going to come back for camp.”

Hamilton offered his take.

“I look at it like I want to embrace the competition,” Hamilton said. “[The Broncos' defensive backs] know the tricks of the trade. They don’t really want you to catch a ball in practice; you have to raise your level, every day, or you won’t get much done. I know they’re going to bring the best out of me.”