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Puka Nacua or TuTu Atwell: Which Rams WRs performance was sign of things to come?

Puka Nacua and TuTu Atwell had good performances in Week 1. Who will continue to have success going forward?

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

When Cooper Kupp was placed on injured reserve on Saturday prior to Week 1 against the Seattle Seahawks, many wondered who quarterback Matthew Stafford would be throwing the ball to on the field. By the end of the game, the answer was clear — Puka Nacua and TuTu Atwell would be the two wide receivers to pay attention to in the Los Angeles Rams offense.

On Sunday, Atwell and Nacua each led Rams wide receivers in receiving yards. While Nacua had more receptions with 10, both players finished with 119 yards. For not having a lot of experience, Atwell and Nacua came up with big plays when needed. On the opening drive, Nacua picked up 16 yards on second-and-goal from the 17-yard line. The Rams ended up scoring a touchdown. Atwell had a key reception on 3rd-and-8 that went for 44-yards. Again, the Rams ended up scoring a touchdown on that drive and taking the lead.

In the advanced stats and player grades, Atwell and Nacua were neck-and-neck. Atwell finished with the third-best receiving grade according to Pro Football Focus while Nacua ranked seventh. Both players tied for fifth in yards per route ran with 3.4.

Without Kupp, Atwell and Nacua stepped up when needed and played a large role in the offense. The hope obviously is that the two players continue to show that they can be relied on as pass catchers. While it may not result in 119 yards every week, they can be players who make a play when their number is called.

What makes this even more interesting and exciting is when Cooper Kupp does return to the field following his hamstring injury. How do the Rams get both players involved and put them in the best situations to succeed?

As a fifth-round rookie, Nacua had the most-yards in franchise history for a Rams receiver in their debut. According to Reception Perception, Nacua had an 84.6 percent success-rate against man coverage and 70.8 percent success-rate against zone. When facing press, Nacua had a success-rate 87.5 percent.

While Nacua may have looked like he was the “Kupp replacement” in Week 1, that wasn’t the case at all. Matt Harmon of Reception Perception wrote,

“Nacua was not a Cooper Kupp replacement in Week 1. The Rams lined him up all over the place. He took 25.4% of his snaps from the slot and was in the backfield as a pre-snap motion option on 9.5%. He was on the line for 57.1% of his snaps and off the line for 42.9%...Nacua has great success rates working in the short and intermediate areas. His success rates on digs, slants, crossers and posts are just a perfect illustration of why he’s such a great fit in this Rams offense...He is next in line of the Cooper Kupp, and Robert Woods types who have fit in so well with McVay. Woods in particular is just such a ridiculously unfair, clone-like comparison for Nacua. From his best routes to the way he loves to get down as a blocker and the appreciation for the dirty work; frankly, it’s hilarious.”

Nacua has answered the bell at every step of the way this offseason. He impressed in OTAs and then carried that momentum into training camp. In the first preseason game, Nacua caught a touchdown pass from Stetson Bennett. Coaches, players, and media raved about this rookie and he finally showed what he was capable of during a regular season game on Sunday.

Said McVay after the game, “Puka Nacua has come in and he’s as mature a rookie as I’ve ever been around, and he is a physical, tough, strong player. He’s got a great way about himself.”

The former BYU wide receiver lined up all over the field and had a diverse route-tree against the Seahawks. The Rams love the backside dig and on dig routes, Nacua had an 85.7 percent success-rate against the Seahawks. His most common route was a slant in which he ran with an 83.3% success-rate.

NFL NextGen Stats

It’s clear at this point that the Rams can’t keep Nacua on the bench even as a fourth wide receiver once Kupp does return. It will be interesting to see how the Rams incorporate him into the offense. Do Atwell and Nacua share the third wide receiver role, or does Nacua bite into some of Van Jefferson’s snaps.

Jefferson had a down-year in 2022 following 2021. On Sunday, he had a drop that would have been a likely touchdown. Jefferson is in a contract year and has a lot to prove not only to the Rams, but other teams around the league. Additionally, a few plays prior to Cam Akers’ touchdown run, Kyren Williams could have had his third touchdown of the day. However, Van Jefferson had a less than ideal blocking rep and Williams was tackled short.

As Harmon noted, Nacua fits the Robert Woods mold that McVay and the Rams utilized at the second wide receiver spot and had a lot of success with from 2017-2021. Is that what the Rams want as their second wide receiver over someone like Jefferson? It’s clear that Nacua can handle the workload and displayed feistiness as a blocker in the run game.

That’s going to be a situation to keep an eye on as there is another thing that was clear on Sunday. The Rams also can’t keep Atwell off of the field and need to be able to utilize him as more than just a deep threat and gadget player. Being able to utilize Atwell in the intermediate areas of the field opens up the opportunities deep down the field. When targeting Atwell in the 0-20 yard range, Stafford was 4-for-5 for 54 yards.

In a similar fashion as the Nacua hype being legitimate in the offseason, so was the Atwell hype. There was a lot of talk on how Atwell had developed as a more complete wide receiver and was lining up all over the offensive formation during training camp. That was the case against the Seahawks.

Atwell was the Rams’ primary slot receiver as five of his eight targets and four of his six receptions came from the slot. McVay also did a nice job with motion to get Atwell a free release off of the line of scrimmage.

On Atwell, McVay said on Monday,

“The stuff that you guys saw yesterday, that wasn’t really anything new to the people that have been in this building. This was just an extension of the work that he’s put in and getting the opportunities and being able to deliver...I thought he made six key and critical catches and I thought there was a lot of different ways that he affected and influenced the game. And I was really happy for Tutu, but those weren’t necessarily things that we hadn’t seen, and I was just happy for him that he got those opportunities and delivered the way that he’s capable of.”

It’s only one game for Atwell after two years of waiting to see what he could do in the offense. After showing flashes of it in 2022, Sunday was the first time the former second-round pick did anything of note outside of one big splash play. His six receptions and 119 yards were both career-highs.

When Kupp does return, does Atwell return to the rotational wide receiver who is used as a deep threat and in “gadget” plays or does he remain in a more full-time role? It would seem that returning Atwell to a situational player is limiting him given the growth he’s shown as a player.

While Nacua is more of the “Kupp-like” player, he also is able to do more from the outside where the Rams have preferred over the last few years to use Kupp from the slot.

It’s been no secret that McVay is getting back to the basics with his offense and on Sunday there was more 12 personnel and snaps under center than we’ve seen with Stafford in the McVay offense. Los Angeles utilized 12 personnel on 19 percent of their offensive plays in Week 1. If the Rams are trying to get back to the 2017-2019 version of the offense, are they trying to build their wide receivers in that same mold?

On the current version of the Rams offense, Kupp could play the role of Kupp while Nacua is Woods, and Atwell plays the role of Brandin Cooks. However, where does that leave a player like Van Jefferson?

It’s a problem that the Rams will need to solve and they have a few weeks to figure all of this out. It will also depend on how Atwell and Nacua continue to perform over the coming weeks. Given the style of the two receivers, McVay may look to utilize Nacua more once Kupp does return as he does fit the typical Rams prototype. That’s nothing against Atwell, but more a compliment of what Nacua brings to the table as just a fifth-round rookie.

Either way, it appears the Rams have more depth at the wide receiver position than originally thought. How McVay utilizes that depth once Kupp returns to the field is going to be interesting to watch.