Los Angeles Rams rookie wide receiver Puka Nacua has consistently wowed fans since being selected in the fifth round of the 2023 NFL draft out of BYU but nobody could have projected that he’d be second in the NFL in yards and first in catches through four weeks. While there was a ton of hype coming out of LA’s training camp on him, his play has far exceeded expectations with Sean McVay and the Rams.
Nacua completed a game-winning touchdown catch in overtime to beat the Indianapolis Colts Sunday, while compiling 163 yards through the matchup and adding to his already staggering total of 501 yards and 39 receptions, both of which are NFL rookie records through four games.
Could Puka reach for more milestones that go beyond just being an unprecedented rookie? Like could he actually be as productive as teammate Cooper Kupp was two years ago? He’s on that pace.
As it stands now, the single-season yardage record is held by former Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson with 1,964 yards, followed secondly by current Rams receiver Cooper Kupp’s triple crown 2021 season, where he lead the league in yards, touchdowns and receptions.
But what do Johnson, Kupp and Nacua all have in common? The same quarterback was throwing the ball for all three of them: Matthew Stafford.
Stafford was Detroit’s quarterback in 2012 when Johnson broke the old receiving mark of 1,848 yards held by Jerry Rice at the time, and obviously, Stafford was also the QB in Los Angeles during their Super Bowl run when Kupp had his best statistical season with 1,947 yards, 16 touchdowns and 145 receptions in 2021.
When asked about how Nacua compares to Kupp, Stafford said:
“Yeah, I think [they’re both] just big, physical, friendly targets for the quarterback, He does a great job after the catch, similar to what Cooper does. Both of those guys are just really physical players at the receiver position. For every catch and run he’s got, there’s three or four blocks on tape where he’s wiping a nickel off the screen and our guys are running off of that. It’s a total-package player and it’s fun to be working with him.”
All of this bodes well for rookie Puka Nacua, who is currently on pace for over 2,000 yards for the season. While it would be shocking if Nacua was able to keep up this pace, especially with Kupp expected back from injury in the next week or two, that’s what Puka has managed to do in an offense so well-suited for his talents thus far.
Stafford, for his part, is considered a “gunslinger” quarterback, with a high propensity to throw the deep ball leading to big plays, but also the occasional interception. His toughness and grit mirrors another former gunslinger in Brett Favre, who went 297 straight without missing a game. Stafford’s toughness was on display Sunday, as he was hobbled by a hip injury, limping to the line after each play. There was no way Stafford would go out of the game willingly though, as he completed the win with a game-ending touchdown pass in overtime.
This also calls back to his innate ability to come up in clutch moments, like when he threw a 44-yard strike to Kupp in the 2021 NFC championship to set up the game-winning field goal with less than 30 seconds to go. While Stafford’s Hall of Fame chances have always been questioned, what cannot be argued is Stafford’s effect on the landscape of NFL history.
Not only was he the QB for the top two receiving seasons in NFL history, he also has a Super Bowl win and has thrown for 53,311 yards, 336 touchdowns and 174 interceptions, putting him 11th for all-time QB yardage and 12th for all-time QB touchdowns thus far in his career. Much of his stats were compiled during a 12-year stint with the Detroit Lions, who frankly were not a very good team in the 2000s. One has to wonder how different his stats may have been if he had not been drafted to such a dysfunctional organization (at the time), considering he won his first Super Bowl the year after he was traded out of Detroit.
Stafford still has the rest of his career to factor into his Hall of Fame standing when he’s eligible in a few years, but what is clear is that history of the NFL can’t accurately be told without mentioning Stafford and his ability to get the best out of his receivers.