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Puka Nacua is a top-10 receiver and not just among the rookies

Rams’ Puka Nacua is no longer beating the odds as a day 3 rookie, he belongs in the top-10 overall conversation

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Puka Nacua wasn’t a top-10 receiver prospect in the 2023 draft, in fact he was the 20th player picked at his position and the final selection of the fifth round, and he wasn’t expected to be one of the top-10 rookies in the league when the season started. Puka was the eighth player selected by his own team and he only ranked 147th in the nation in receiving yards as a senior at BYU.

Less than a year later, it’s well past time to say what should be obvious by now: Rams rookie Puka Nacua is one of the top-10 receivers in the NFL. Not just among rookies, but among all players. And that is backed up by the stats, the eye test, and the feeling you have when he’s on the field.

Matthew Stafford isn’t targeting Puka Nacua at a high rate because Cooper Kupp is hobbled or because he has to. It’s because he wants to. It’s because Stafford gets to.

Yards Per Route/Run

Though Tyreek Hill is getting MVP consideration on the Miami Dolphins because he’s playing on another stratosphere, this chart by Football Insights shows that Puka has been one of the most complete receivers in the NFL this season: In yards per route run against both Man and Zone coverages, only a handful of receivers are more balanced and ranked near the top outside of Hill sitting all by his lonesome in the top-right:

Other than a few other receivers, including some already considered elite like A.J. Brown, Mike Evans, and CeeDee Lamb, Puka Nacua is as good as anyone and situated near Jaylen Waddle.

Puka’s 77 catches this season is the 10th-most in the NFL and his 1,029 yards is sixth-most. Only Keenan Allen, Hill, Lamb, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Stefon Diggs, and A.J. Brown are top-10 in both categories with Puka.

With three 150+ yard games this season, Puka joined Randy Moss and Ja’Marr Chase as the only rookies to have three such performances in their first year. All you have to do is pretend that Puka was drafted in the first round—and he’s clearly playing like a receiver who has the talent to have warranted that decision, same as Amon-Ra St. Brown and Anquan Boldin immediately proved to be post-first steals—and why wouldn’t we all be saying that he’s already a top-10 receiver?

The draft is OVER. So forget his status from April and consider what he’s doing right now: Puka is performing like a top-10 receiver already.

Eye Test

It’s not just that Puka gets a lot of targets in a pass-heavy offense. He appears to be much faster than anticipated at the time of the draft and his sense of ball-tracking and body control is up there with the best in the league already. On the play in which Puka was hurt (but later returned), he proved to be able to make highlight sideline catches and to be able to hold onto a football even as he in serious pain.

He is also great with the ball in his hands and at getting YAC, as he also added a 31-yard jet sweep to his resume on Sunday against the Browns.

The It Factor

Who wouldn’t want to root for Puka Nacua? He’s humble, he stays positive, he plays like a teammate you want to go to war with. There’s virtually nothing unlikeable about Puka Nacua and while that could make for a nice story, it goes beyond being a narrative. This is someone who has endeared himself to the quarterback and the coaching staff, a quality not found in all receivers and one that has helped him go from being a fifth round pick who could have been buried on the depth chart...to one who quickly became Stafford’s go-to option when Kupp was injured in training camp.

Nacua’s 35 targets in Week 1-2 was not just a record, it was an opportunity for him to get better on the job and has propelled him into being an even better receiver lately than he was at the start of the season.

At his current pace, Nacua would have a 17-game total of 109 catches (rookie record), 1,458 yards (near the record), and six touchdowns. These are also numbers unheard of from a fifth round rookie (or anything post-second round) and nearly unheard for a receiver of any year who was drafted that late.

One of the only ones I can think of in the modern era, Tyreek Hill and Stefon Diggs, are no longer questioned because they were fifth round picks. They’re just called top-10 receivers.

At this rate, Puka Nacua belongs there too. Maybe as soon as this season.