Back when he was in college playing for my alma mater, Tennessee, I always felt like current Steelers defensive back Cameron Sutton was a really good player. I never did a breakdown on him, but he always seemed to be making plays and getting his hands on passes. While I wasn’t sure just how good of an NFL player he would turn out to be, I was reasonably sure that he would at least be OK.
Up until this offseason, I hadn’t taken a good look at Sutton since his college days, to be honest. The Steelers took him in the third round in the 2017 draft, which seemed about right to me at the time. He was only active for five games that season, though. Last season he was active for 15 games, but he only had one start and I just didn’t notice him much when I watched the Steelers play.
Of course, during the season I take more of a holistic view of games rather than critiquing every single player and every single play, which would be utterly impossible for me to do by myself. When I started watching “breakout candidates” this offseason, I finally was able to hone in on Sutton and pay him my full attention.
While it is obvious that Sutton is still growing as a player, I see potential for him to step up his game and ball out this year.
Last season, Sutton appeared to be used as a matchup guy and as a nickel/dime linebacker. He was matched up on tight ends quite a bit in coverage, and every once in a while he would cover a slot receiver as well. Other times, he would end up having to play the run like an off-the-ball linebacker. In everything he was called upon to do, I could really see his athleticism shining through.
For one thing, Sutton was able to react quickly whenever he saw a run read. That is key when you have a defensive back subbing in for a linebacker. A 5’11, 188-pound guy like Sutton can’t afford to get tangled up with 300+ pound offensive linemen because he will lose that battle almost every time. He did a good job of being able to get downhill in a hurry and avoid the clutter so he could try to make a play on the ball carrier.
In coverage, he was able to stay with pretty much anybody on deeper routes. Sutton is never going to be the fastest guy on the field, but he has impressive game speed and he isn’t afraid to challenge receivers at the line of scrimmage. When he is in zone coverage, he is also good at quickly jumping shorter routes.
Sutton has good eyes and instincts, and once he gets his confidence up just a little higher, I don’t think there is any question that he is going to start getting his hands on a lot of passes. Last season he had three pass breakups and one interception, and I believe if he stays healthy this year, his production in those two categories is going to skyrocket.
Where I think Sutton still has room to grow is on covering shorter routes in man to man.
That is especially true for out-breaking routes. While Sutton has plenty of speed, he tends to try to stay over the top of the guy he is covering for some reason. That makes it possible for the receivers to then push off at the top of their route and break inside and outside. Because Sutton is usually already deeper than they are, even if he recovers enough to back in on the play, he never really had a shot of breaking up the pass unless it’s thrown behind them.
If he can get to the point where he trusts his speed enough to play underneath some of those out-breaking routes, not only will his pass breakups go up, I think you will see Sutton take a couple of those to the house this season. As long as he continues to improve in coverage the way he has his first two seasons, he is going to start smothering people, especially tight ends.
There are already several reports out of Steelers training camp that Sutton has turned into a ball hawk this preseason. It remains to be seen if he can carry over those kinds of performances into actual games, but I have confidence that he will.
Like I said, I’ve always seen Sutton as a good football player, not just a good defensive back. He is a guy who knows how to make plays and he’s bound to start making some in the NFL eventually. I believe that “eventually” has arrived this season.
While he may not technically end up being a starter, I expect that Sutton will have a major role on the Steelers’ defense, and that he will make some huge plays in crucial moments this year.
Confidence level: Moderate