One of the biggest stories this season has been the rise of Los Angeles Rams rookie wide receiver, Puka Nacua. Through four games, Nacua is out-pacing Cooper Kupp’s triple crown season in both yards and receptions.
Nacua’s 39 catches and 501 receiving yards are both NFL records for a player in thier first four games in the NFL. It’s also the record for the most through five games. The Rams rookie is just the second player ever to have over 100 receiving yards in three of their first four weeks. Nacua set a rookie record in Week 2 against the San Francisco 49ers with 15 receptions in a single game.
However, Cooper Kupp is set to potentially return this week against the Philadelphia Eagles. Kupp was listed as limited on Wednesday, but as Sean McVay noted, he wasn’t limited. It seems as if Kupp is on track to start on Sunday.
The biggest question here is what does the Rams offense looks like with both Kupp and Nacua on the field? Will Nacua be moved to a lesser role?
Matt Harmon, the creator of Reception Perception, weighed in on this exact topic. Reception Perception does in-season charting of NFL wide receivers. Here’s what Harmon had to say,
“The film 100% matches the production. Nacua’s understanding of zone coverage is advanced but his 80% success rate vs. man and 77% success rate vs. press are the headline numbers. And remember, he cleared 70% success rate vs. man and press in college. Crushing on staple in-breaking routes in McVay’s offense like the dig (22.5% of routes) and slant (23.8%). He lined up in the slot on fewer than 25% of his snaps. He’ll retain a huge role when Kupp returns.”
To the untrained eye, it seems like Nacua is doing many of the same things that Kupp did. They are both possession receivers and seem to have similar styles. With that said, the roles that they play in the Rams offense are very different.
Route charts from Puka Nacua's first four games.— Blaine Grisak (@bgrisakTST) October 5, 2023
Love that Puka got promoted from "guy with no picture" to "worthy of a headshot" after one game. pic.twitter.com/bUagWrHmk8
Harmon’s point on Nacua and Kupp’s differences in lining up in the slot is spot on. As Harmon noted, Nacua has only lined up in the slot on fewer than 25 percent of his snaps. Only eight of his 50 targets have come when he’s lined up in the slot. That’s 16 percent.
Contrarily, in charted games, Kupp lined up in the slot on 64.6 percent of his snaps in 2021 and a career-low 46.6 percent of his snaps came from the slot last season. Still, that’s a much higher rate than Nacua.
Nacua is doing some of his own things, but his role is much closer to what the Rams were beginning to do with Robert Woods than it is Cooper Kupp. In 2021, only 28 percent of Woods’ targets came from the slot which was his lowest rate in a Rams uniform.
The Rams rookie is almost a clone of Robert Woods. In 2021, Woods had an 84.4 percent success rate on slants. In Harmon’s Week 1 charting of Nacua, the rookie had an 83.3 percent success rate on slants. They do a lot of the same things well. From in-breaking routes, to their willingness to have an impact in the run game. McVay complimented Nacua on his effect in the run game, saying,
“I think what’s been as impressive as anything too is if you look at the different ways that he’s contributing in the run game, whether it’s blocking defensive ends, blocking safeties and support. He’s been a huge factor in that for us as well not exclusive to making third down catches or some of those plays that you guys saw last week in the play action game, but it’s just been really good consistent production.”
That alone is going to keep him on the field. The Rams value their wide receivers blocking in the run game and Nacua has been one of the best at it. Only 14 wide receivers this season have more than 80 run-blocking snaps via PFF. Nacua is one of them. Nacua and Zay Flowers are the only rookies on that list.
Among those 14 WRs, Puka Nacua’s 75.2 run-blocking grade ranks second behind Josh Reynolds and ahead of Amon-Ra St. Brown.
The most underrated part of Puka Nacua's game is his blocking. Comes in through the C-gap to make the block which will come up later.— Blaine Grisak (@bgrisakTST) October 4, 2023
His block here is critical to Kyren Williams' run. Opens up Williams for another 8 yards. pic.twitter.com/DprNpVbmQb
However, while Nacua is doing some of the same things Woods did, the Rams have done a good job evolving that role and making it unique for Nacua. That role is only going to continue and likely expand in a sense when Kupp returns to the field. The production may not be the same, but Nacua isn’t all of a sudden going to get benched. McVay said on Wednesday,
“I think you do what you think is best. It just so happens that there’s been a lot of situations where he’s been high in some of the progressions for Matthew and he’s been able to deliver in a big way. I think you credit Matthew. You credit Puka for being able to deliver on those things. There are certain instances where it’s good to be able to get a lot of different people involved and making sure that they got to be able to defend the field in a different variety of ways...Like you’ve heard me say before, it’s awesome to be able to have a guy that’s gotten some of the production that he has, but I also think it’s great to be able to have multiple people that can be able to make their plays. You want to be able to make people defend all five eligibles. That’s usually when offenses are toughest to defend and that’s obviously what we’re striving for.”
Nacua is a valued piece of the offense and while his production may take a hit as Kupp will rightfully be the first read on more progressions, he’s still going to be productive and have a large role. This is a Rams offense that was able to sustain two productive wide receivers in Kupp and Woods for almost five years.
The wide receivers that this may affect to some extent is TuTu Atwell and Van Jefferson. Many of Atwell’s snaps have come motioning into the slot. It will be interesting to see how the Rams continue to utilize Atwell. They’ve used him as much more than just a deep threat and he’s had success in that role. The third-year wide receiver is still on pace for over 1000 yards.
Meanwhile, Van Jefferson likely moves down to the fourth wide receiver on the depth chart and may not see the field as often or rotates with Atwell.
If the Rams are moving to more of a 2018-19 version of the offense, there’s only one way to look at the wide receivers. In those two seasons, the Rams had Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks, and Van Jefferson. Looking at the current offense, Kupp, Nacua, Atwell, and Jefferson fit those similar roles.
At the end of the day, it’s a good problem to have and not a predicament that many thought the Rams would be in at this point in the season. We can speculate on how the Rams will adjust the offense in Kupp’s return. We’ll see what that actually looks like, hopefully on Sunday against the Eagles.