Injuries ravaged the receiving room of the Los Angeles Rams last season. No one including All-Pro Cooper Kupp was safe as multiple pass catchers missed significant time in 2022. With that in mind, the Rams had to go receiver at some point in the draft and did so in a big way with the last pick in the fifth round, Puka Nacua.
With unproven playmakers like Tutu Atwell and Ben Skowronek sitting on the roster behind Kupp, LA had to bolster the depth chart in a hurry. Although Nacua may have a concerning injury history himself, there’s simply no denying the role he can play in Sean McVay’s offense when healthy. Plus, his name is super fun to say! I’ll cover Nacua’s production at BYU, understanding why he might’ve dropped so far in the draft and what his role in LA’s offense could be in ‘23.
Husky out of water before becoming powerful playmaker at BYU
Puka Nacua become a stud at Brigham Young, but that path to stardom began with a rough patch with the Washington Huskies. Between his freshman and sophomore campaigns, Nacua played in 11 games, having 16 catches for 319 yards and three scores. The Huskies didn’t run him out of the backfield once, wasting a golden opportunity to maximize his dynamic skillset. After a COVID-shortened 2020 season, the young playmaker transferred to BYU.
Nacua played at BYU for a total of 21 games, and made the most of the 14 starts he earned. During his two seasons with the Cougars, Nacua led his team in receiving both years and finished his career with 91 receptions for 1,430 yards and 11 touchdowns. He routinely flashed his big play specialty as he averaged over 15 yards a reception.
Part of what makes Nacua’s game so elusive is how complete of a receiver he could become. While his route tree was quite limited at BYU to put it mildly, his raw talent alone could be lethal at the pro level once he discovers the proper way to harness it. He not only has remarkable speed that can be utilized at multiple positions but he also has excellent awareness of where he’s at on the field. This sideline snag against Baylor in 2021 illustrates Nacua’s ability to locate the ball in the air and adjust to it on the fly:
Puka Nacua boundary work is magnifico pic.twitter.com/nypMGstKsj— JetPack Galileo (@JetPackGalileo) May 3, 2023
Nacua recorded seven games with over 100 receiving yards. The most memorable coming against Boise State his final season where he had the game of his life. At Albertsons Stadium on a late November evening, it was Nacua’s time to shine and he did just that with a career-high 14 receptions for 157 and a pair of touchdowns. The final one with just under two minutes remaining ripped the poor Broncos’ hearts out.
When I think back on Puka Nacua’s BYU career, I’ll remember this catch most— Casey Lundquist (@casey_lundquist) April 29, 2023
Puka was an absolute menace against every defensive coverage he faced. However, he was particularly dangerous when facing zone coverage. In the analytics community, Yards per Route Run or (YPRR) in the NCAA is a stat that shows how many receiving yards a player accumulates on any particular route they run, on average. Out of all wide receivers in the NFL Draft, Nacua ranked second in YPRR against zone coverage in ‘22.
Below are the top 5 WRs in YPRR against zone coverage last season. #NFLDraft— Nick Penticoff (@NickPenticoff) May 2, 2023
1. Rashee Rice 3.85
2. Puka Nacua 3.81
3. Marvin Mims 3.60
4. Jalin Hyatt 3.51
T5. Tyler Scott 3.47
T5. Trey Palmer 3.47
Meaning that if the BYU product can find soft areas against zone coverage in the NFL, he’s more than capable of blowing the top off a defense and making them pay.
Breaking down the injury history
Injuries are an unfortunate aspect of football and oftentimes a severe one (or two) can put a damper on a prospect’s professional dreams. Obviously that’s a known fact across the NFL which makes it all the more difficult for a player like Puka Nacua to make a name for himself right away.
In his freshman season at Washington, Nacua suffered a broken foot eight games in. Then with the Cougars his final year, he missed four games total, suffering minor injuries against USF and Wyoming respectively. Nacua and fellow top receiver Gunner Romney most notably missed a Saturday night game where BYU was hosting No. 9-ranked Baylor. Following the previous week’s matchup against South Florida, Nacua sprained his ankle and was seen wearing a walking boot during the blowout win.
Again, injuries are part of football and this will be an issue for the Rams to monitor. Sometimes it’s those nagging injuries that follows these youngsters to the pros which can greatly derail what they can do on the field until they’re fully healthy or close to it.
The second coming of Bobby Trees?
From 2017-21, Robert Woods was one of the most effective and underrated receivers in the NFL. He ran McVay’s offense to perfection, especially the jet sweeps as demonstrated in a 2020 home game against the 49ers:
Look at the tight splits the Rams OL uses here on 3rd & 1 to sell a QB sneak or inside run. Making everything look like they're attacking inside before hitting them with a Jet sweep to Robert Woods to attack the perimeter (look at #96).— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) December 5, 2020
Kupp does a nice job blocking, too. pic.twitter.com/7oS9zkg4Vo
During his time in LA before being shipped off to the Titans, Woods ran 70 times for 485 yards and five touchdowns. That threat wasn’t seen as much in the offense last season. Jet sweeps were few and far between due to injuries but they could make a return with Puka Nacua in the fold. In his two years at BYU, Nacua carried the ball 39 times for 357 yards and five rushing touchdowns. Putting the ball in the rookie’s hands could stress out any defense as he’s such a weapon in open space.
Having a hard time wrapping my mind around this Puka Nacua acceleration. Buddy found himself a wormhole pic.twitter.com/wlLgHHs8D6— JetPack Galileo (@JetPackGalileo) May 2, 2023
That aspect of his play style should have LA fans excited given that McVay may again finally have another Robert Woods prototype to utilize in his offense. Nacua clearly has the speed and experience as a blocker which will work wonders for him. It’s no wonder why those among the fanbase are treating the BYU product as the second coming of Bobby Trees.
Puka Nacua can block man and he’s got insane YAC. Is Puka gonna be our Bobby trees?— HoldenCantor (@HoldenCantor) May 3, 2023
What a damn luxury it would be if Puka Nacua could turn into what Robert Woods was for the Rams from 2017-2021. pic.twitter.com/0eX3KtmGF9— Rams Brothers (@RamsBrothers) May 4, 2023
As for Puka’s role in LA’s offense his rookie year, I expect him to start out on special teams all while McVay decides to give him gradual roles along the offense. My bet is that Nacua will be used more in the run game/on jet sweeps than in the passing game. His speed and YAC ability is evident but his skills as a receiver will need time to develop as he transitions to the pros. Once he earns a larger role on offense, he’ll be difficult to remove from the starting lineup. Until that day arrives, watch these clips of Robert Woods and imagine Puka Nacua in his place. That day may come sooner rather than later.
What you see:— Matt FF Dynasty (@MattFFDynasty) May 2, 2023
Robert Woods running jet sweeps/end arounds while on the Rams
What I see:
Puka Nacua in this years Rams offense