ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Courtland Sutton learned of the trade through text messages. He was heading out to the Broncos' blood drive event, and his phone began buzzing. Demaryius Thomas was gone, shipped off to the Houston Texans for a 2019 fourth-round pick and an exchange of seventh-round selections.
Thomas exits as the Broncos' No. 2 all-time receiver in yards (9,055) and touchdowns (60). No Denver player has more 100-yard games. And yet, it was time. Thomas knew it after the Broncos' loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, estimating odds of a deal at "50-50."
"We talked about it in our receivers room," Sutton said. "So we knew it could happen."
It didn't make it any easier. Knowing Sutton would replace him someday -- though not this soon -- Thomas mentored the former SMU star, staying after practice to work on routes and spending extra time on film study.
Let's not be naive. The Broncos moved Thomas because it created salary cap space, saving $4.5 million this year alone. But, Thomas is gone because Sutton is here.
"We thought that this would give Courtland a chance to get out there, play more and become a bigger part of it because we think he’s ready to go," general manager John Elway said Tuesday. "He’s played well up to this point in time. Hopefully this accelerates his maturity.”
Sutton was projected as a first-round pick and fell into Denver's lap on the second day. In camp, he began drawing comparisons to Thomas' new Houston teammate DeAndre Hopkins because of his ability to leap over defenders with grace and strength.
During the season, his role has grown. Sutton has 17 catches for 324 yards and two touchdowns. While Thomas' yards per reception has declined for a fifth consecutive season, Sutton ranks third in the league at 19.1.
"It's always tough to see a veteran like DT go. When I got here he showed me the ropes," said first-round pick Bradley Chubb, who hails from the Atlanta area like Thomas. "When it comes to Courtland, he's probably one of the best receivers I have seen in person. He's so physical. He's so fast. I am excited to see what he does."
Sutton is prepared to reward the team's faith. It starts Sunday by going against Thomas. The challenge for the rookie is evolving, showing he can run the entire route tree. He boasts multiple catches on deep routes down the sideline. Can he cover over the middle? Will he become a weapon on slants and bubble screens?
"I don't flinch from situations like this," Sutton said. "It goes back to OTAs for me. Showing up and giving my all everyday. Working on my craft everyday. I can be the best version of myself. And if I am the best version of myself, I can be one of the top receivers in the league. I just have to come to work and do my job, not only for myself to move forward but for the team."
His development could ease the sting of Thomas' departure. The Broncos plan to honor Thomas Sunday, and Elway admitted the former first-round pick will be in the team's Ring of Fame.
"This hurts," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. told Denver7.
Yet it was time. Sutton made that clear, in large part, because of Thomas' tutoring.
"DT is one of the most humble dudes I’ve ever met and it was an honor to play on the same team as him," Wolfe said. "I hate to see him go and I wish him nothing but success."
Thomas is gone because Sutton is here.
"You have seen Courtland," Sanders said. "He's ready to start."
The Broncos continue to deal with injuries. Starters Darian Stewart (neck), Brandon Marshall (bone bruise in knee) and Royce Freeman (ankle) did not practice Wednesday. Marshall is not expected to play against Houston, leaving Josey Jewell likely to start. Stewart and Freeman remain possible participants. Right tackle Jared Veldheer was at practice, and expects to play Sunday. His return could lead to fewer snaps for struggling left tackle Garett Bolles. Safety Su'a Cravens returns this week. ... Cornerback Bradley Roby missed practice with a sprained ankle and was wearing a boot in the locker room. If he's limited, it means more snaps for Tramaine Brock and possibly veteran Adam Jones.