At one point this summer, Emmanuel Sanders and Courtland Sutton engaged in a fist fight on the Broncos practice field. The reported cause was that Sanders was fed up with the younger receivers on this team not focusing as fully or dedicating themselves as fully as he felt they should.
Things settled down for a while, but over the last few weeks it seemed that Sanders was becoming a distraction in the locker room due to his desire to win…and the Broncos responded by lowering his usage the last few games and then finally granting him his wish with a ticket out of town. Manny now gets to play for the undefeated 49ers. The 49ers (whose major complaint with their wide receivers has centered around the fact that they don’t feel any of their wideouts have the sort of killer mentality they desire from that position group) now has a gritty, aggressive veteran to lead the way. And the Broncos get Courtland Sutton taking over as the true, undisputed number one receiver at last.
Last year, Sutton struggled as the number one option — but whether he is Manny-like on the practice field or not, he has improved quite a bit from last year to this year, becoming a more complete wide receiver instead of just a physical specimen with outstanding ball skills. As we enter Week 8, Sutton has seven to nine targets in every game on the season, and his worst games on the year have produced stat lines of 4-40-0 and 4-76-0 — solid outputs for “worst” games after seven contests in all. On DraftKings and FantasyDraft, Sutton’s 16.2 points per game is within 2.2 points of Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Evans, and Keenan Allen, and he has been even more valuable on FanDuel (where his lower reception totals matter less) — producing within 1.2 points of all of those names. With the alpha tag to himself, he is underpriced for his role.
With the Colts generally forcing shorter throws and tackling well after the catch, volume has been necessary (outside of Stills’ game last week) for receivers to pile up yardage in this matchup — but volume should be there for Sutton, and he’s well-suited to the types of routes that can beat this defense: zone-beating crossers and flag routes in particular. The biggest risk for Sutton is any fear that the Colts find a way to tilt extra coverage his direction. The second biggest risk is simply the fact that he has to rely on Joe Flacco to get him the ball.
Behind Sutton, the Broncos passing attack gets thin pretty quickly with Tim Patrick not yet back and no one else producing much so far this year. DaeSean Hamilton is next in line to see his role expand — though we should note that Manny is leaving behind only 3.3 targets per game across his last three contests, so there is no guarantee that any player sees an appreciable bump over the second half of the season. Noah Fant has theoretical upside as well. Anyone but Sutton is just hoping to capture some good fortune and luck if you’re hunting for the sorts of scores that can help you take down a tourney.
The Broncos backfield is in a difficult spot with Darius Leonard back on the field for the Colts. Snaps are split almost down the middle for Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman, with Lindsay having picked up 14 more touches on the season while breaking off a much larger share of the scoring-position work (seven touches inside the five-yard-line for Lindsay, compared to only one for Royce). With both of these guys, you are just hoping for something to click: a big play or score to accelerate what otherwise shapes up to be a slower scoring pace.
On the other side of the ball, Denver is a really difficult matchup for offenses, and they are getting better each week. At present, they rank seventh in DVOA against the pass and third in yards allowed per pass attempt, while shaving 8% off the league-average aDOT, 12% off the league-average YAC/r rate, and over 16% off the league-average expected yards per target (the fourth best mark in the NFL). The Broncos have allowed the fourth fewest wide receiver catches and the third fewest wide receiver yards.
Of course, the public belief is that the way to attack the Broncos is on the ground — but outside of the 225-yard effort produced by Leonard Fournette in this matchup, the Broncos allowed 85 yards (on 23 carries) in Week 1 to Josh Jacobs, and they have not yet allowed any other back to go over 62 yards on the ground (with games against the Packers // Chiefs // Chargers // Titans // Bears). The Broncos rank 13th in DVOA against the run and 16th in yards allowed per carry, and they have given up the fourth fewest yards as a whole and the eighth fewest points. Frank Reich will have a plan this week for the Colts to move the ball and put up points, but it will be really difficult for action to concentrate enough on one player for slate-breaking upside to emerge. This may not be the Denver defense of old, but it’s still one of the stronger units in the league, and you’re largely guessing // hoping across the board in trying to capture a slate-breaker in this spot.
JM’s Interpretation ::
We have done a great job this year seeing places where the adaptable Colts offense can be targeted in specific ways for our rosters — but the best bet by the numbers in this spot is to leave this offense alone. It’s likely that we see a few respectable scores emerge from this side of the ball, but it will be difficult for week-winning scores to show up. If wanting to hunt for such scores, your best bet is this team’s “upside” pieces — T.Y. Hilton and Marlon Mack. Mack could shine if the Colts’ tremendous offensive line can get the better of the red hot Broncos run D.
On the Broncos, it’s difficult to get behind pass game pieces outside of Sutton, and it’s difficult to get behind a split backfield in a bad spot. As for Sutton: there is some risk with him being the complete focal point of the defense and with Flacco getting him the ball — but given his upside, his locked-in role, and his cheap price, he’s in play in all contest types this week. His floor carries some volatility risk, but frankly, that’s the case with all wide receivers, every week. The likeliest scenario here has Sutton producing a solid game, with available paths to a big one.
:: Bonus feature: find current NFL Defensive Identities here!