Seeing the name “Puka Nacua” may cause some folks to ask, “Who?”
Well, Nacua was the 42nd pick and the 177th overall in the fifth round of the NFL Draft out of BYU by the Los Angeles Rams. He wasn’t even the Rams’ first pick in the fifth round—he was their fourth. Nacua supposedly did not have “the measurables” to be an NFL receiver. He was projected to be like any other fifth-round pick, looked at to fill a roster spot on special teams and spot duty when the starters are out.
Nacua has been anything but that.
Through his first four games, the 6-foot-2, 205-pound rookie receiver is setting the NFL on fire. For someone deemed “not fast enough,” he has had no problem lighting up NFL secondaries.
The Rams found a gem in Nacua, whose 39 receptions for 501 yards are the most by a player in his first four games in NFL history, snapping the previous mark once held by Anquan Boldin with 30 receptions for 464 yards in 2003. Nacua is the first rookie since the 1970 merger to lead the NFL in receptions through four weeks. Last week, he caught nine receptions for 163 yards, including the game-winning 22-yard touchdown in the Rams’ 29-23 comeback, overtime victory in Indianapolis. Through four games, the only receiver with more receiving yards is Minnesota’s superlative Justin Jefferson (543), the best receiver in the NFL. After Chicago’s 40-20 blowout over Washington, the Bears’ DJ Moore is second in the NFL with 531 receiving yards, though that is over five games.
Nacua’s 39 catches are from an NFL-high 52 targets and he apparently has the confidence of Rams’ quarterback Matt Stafford and coach Sean McVay.
On Sunday, Nacua and the Rams (2-2) host the undefeated Eagles (4-0) at SoFi Stadium (4:05 PM ET, FOX). Since their 2017 Super Bowl season, the Eagles are 4-0 in California (wins over San Francisco in 2020, the Rams in 2018, and the Chargers and Rams in 2017). But that will be challenged this Sunday, with the return of Cooper Kupp and in trying to contain Nacua.
Eagles’ defensive coordinator Sean Desai has been playing a soft zone, opting not to use press coverage.
“He’s played really good so far,” Desai said of Nacua. “I think [Rams Head] Coach [Sean] McVay and obviously [Rams QB] Matt Stafford and all those guys do a great job on offense, and they have really found ways to get him open and get him the ball, and he’s done a good job separating at the top (of) routes. Obviously (he) has good hands and then he can make some plays after the catch, too. They are creating some matchups with motions, obviously for him and [Rams WR] Tutu [Atwell], that can create some binds for defenses, so you can see why the production has been there.”
Nacua has fit well in place of Kupp, the former Super Bowl MVP who has been battling a hamstring injury since training camp. With Kupp back and healthy, McVay will have to find a way for both receivers to see the field.
“I think it’s a balance,” McVay said earlier this week in addressing how Kupp and Nacua will work. “I think there’s always an element of, OK, what do we want to be able to live in? When are those situations coming up that we want to activate those types of plays? What type of structures are we anticipating to attack? And so, there’s a lot of layers, but I think it’s kind of deciding on – I think the first part of it is, it’s a good thing.”
The Eagles gave up a season-high 31 points in their 34-31 overtime victory over Washington last Sunday. It looks like they will be without defensive tackle Fletcher Cox due to a back injury and can’t afford penalties to extend drives on third down as they did against Washington.
McVay and Stafford present a lot of problems.
“I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but it really is about us,” Desai stressed. “It’s really about what we do and what we see. They do a great job. They have a high motion rate and they have got some good skill players that they try to get out in space. They do a good job in the run game, and they try to get guys out of their fits with all their motions and everything like that. It’s really about us and slowing the game down and what we’re seeing, and then being able to play physical and downhill the way we want to play our brand of football. Don’t make it a sideways game for us.”
On a personal note, thanks to everyone from BGN who came up to congratulate me during hall of fame weekend. It was a pleasure to meet you all.
Joseph Santoliquito is a hall of fame, award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who has written feature stories for SI.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com, MLB.com, Deadspin and The Philadelphia Daily News. In 2006, he was nominated for an Emmy Award for a special project piece for ESPN.com called “Love at First Beep.” He is most noted for his award-winning ESPN.com feature on high school wrestler A.J. Detwiler in February 2006, which appeared on SportsCenter. In 2015, he was elected president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.