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Puka Nacua’s rookie receiving records may not last for long

The Rams drafted an historically great rookie receiver, but his records may fall soon for this reason

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at San Francisco 49ers Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

It took over 60 years for someone to break the NFL’s rookie receiving yards record and L.A. Rams receiver Puka Nacua will go down in history as the first player to pass Bill Groman’s mark from 1960. Nobody can ever take what he did away from him. However, it might not even take six more years until the next rookie sets new marks for catches and yards by a first-year player and the reason is simple.

18 games.

The NFL expanded the schedule from 16 games to 17 games in 2021, but few expect the league to stop there. The league initially tried to expand the schedule to 18 games during the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement and failed, yet they eventually got what they wanted 10 years later to get the schedule to 17 games. That was just a compromise to get the NFL one step closer to 18 games, not a stopping point.

There is an expectation that the NFL could go to 18 games as soon as 2025.

What 18 games gives the NFL:

  • Two bye weeks
  • Reducing preseason from 3 games to 2 games
  • Move the Super Bowl back to the day before Presidents’ Day, aka a day off after the Super Bowl
  • Another week of regular season TV ratings

Of course, the NFL wants to do two things in the coming years: Play more international games (including potentially moving or expanding teams to Europe) and play more games that have meaning. To put it more succinctly, the NFL wants to make more money and those two things let them accomplish that goal.

The blog SaintsWire pointed this out about Presidents’ Day, which falls on the third Monday of February.

By eliminating the third preseason game and moving Week 1 up a week sooner while adding a second bye week and another regular season game, we’ve laid out a scenario where the Super Bowl would precede Presidents’ Day. In 2024, Presidents’ Day falls on Feb. 19. Super Bowl LVIII will be played on Feb. 11. Moving it with our schedule tweaks puts it on Feb. 18 and give many fans the following Monday off to recover from the festivities during what’s already a national holiday. How’s that for a happy coincidence?

In recent years, we’ve seen the NFL expand the playoffs and the regular season (meaning more ratings, more TV deals, more eyeballs on the highest-rated show on television) and if you’ve learned anything in life it should be that “more is never enough”.

The NFL is going to 18 games and it could happen by 2025.

The expansion of the schedule helped Puka surpass Groman and in the near future it is likely to help a rookie in the near future move past Puka.

How will the records be broken?

The NFL went from 14 games to 16 games in 1978, therefore Groman set his mark of 1,473 yards in 14 games. Three fewer than Puka (1,486 yards) and Ja’Marr Chase (1,455 yards in 2021). When Odell Beckham Jr had 1,305 yards in 2014, he did that in only 12 games, so his 108.8 yards per game average is the highest in NFL history; Groman had 105.2 per game and Billy Howton had 102.6 per game in 1952.

Puka averaged 87.4 yards per game and Chase was at 85.6 per game, a significant difference between them and OBJ, Groman, and Howton.

But Groman’s placement on top was always an anomaly, as three of the top-four seasons have happened in the last four years (Puka, Chase, Justin Jefferson in 2020) and there’s been a rapid increase of 1,000-yard rookie seasons since the NFL’s 17-game expansion:

Jaylen Waddle, Kyle Pitts, Chris Olave, and Garrett Wilson are four of the 30 rookie receivers all-time to cross 1,000 yards and those all happened in a two-year span.

All it’s going to take is for one player to hit the ground running in a passing offense, which are far more frequent these days than they were 60 years ago, but also significantly more frequent than 20 or 10 years ago. Puka got hooked up with the best QB partner in NFL history for a receiver trying to break records (Calvin Johnson, Cooper Kupp can attest to Matthew Stafford’s abilities to feed his favorite target) and there will be plenty of quarterbacks in the next few years capable of airing it out a lot to their favorite player.

This doesn’t diminish what Puka Nacua accomplished by a fraction of a percentage of a sliver of a nugget, it’s just an example of how the NFL is a league where every season is a new season. New rules, new parameters, new styles, and new records. For a league that demands headlines of “record-breaking contracts” every offseason, we can’t expect anything different from the record books.

Puka’s records

Puka Nacua passed Jaylen Waddle for the all-time rookie receptions record by catching 105 passes in 17 games. Waddle passed Anquan Boldin’s record when he caught 104 passes in 16 games in 2021. No other rookie has ever caught 100 passes.

But Michael Thomas had 92 in 2016 and OBJ had 91 in 2014, meaning that four of the top five season ever have happened in the last 10 years. And catching 100 passes is more commonplace than ever before: 12 players did it in 2023.

It used to be common for no receiver to catch 100 passes in a single season. As recently as 2010 and 2011, only two players did it. In 1998, O.J. McDuffie was the only player to even catch 90 passes.

This year, CeeDee Lamb caught 135 passes in 17 games, while Tyreek Hill and Amon-Ra St. Brown each caught 119 in 16 games. Keenan Allen averaged 8.3 catches per game, the highest mark in the NFL; if he played in 17 games, that would have been 141 catches at that pace.

We aren’t far off from the NFL’s first 2,000-yard receiving season or first 150-catch season.

Similarly, we should expect the first 1,500-yard rookie receiving season and first time a rookie caught at least 106 passes. Puka deserves every bit of the accolades he has received—plus many more—but factually speaking the advantages will only get greater from here on out.

Who will do it?

It’s foolish to guess what players who have never been in the NFL before will do with teams and quarterbacks who we couldn’t possibly know by now, but certainly the 2024 draft has two names that stand out at the receiver position.

Marvin Harrison, Sr. once caught 143 passes for 1,722 yards when playing with Peyton Manning on the Colts in 2002, finishing second in Offensive Player of the Year voting. His son Marvin Harrison, Jr. is being touted as the best receiver prospect since Ja’Marr Chase, but maybe we could even stretch back as far as Calvin Johnson.

You probably won’t find a credible mock draft that doesn’t have Harrison as the first non-quarterback drafted. I don’t intend to overhype Harrison, that’s just literally how people talk about him.

If Harrison goes to the Cardinals, there’s a good chance that offensive coordinator Drew Petzing will almost exclusively draw up plays for his star rookie receiver and Kyler Murray will need a new number one receiver. Harrison getting targeted 190 times in Arizona’s offense would not be surprising, even as a rookie.

There’s also the possibility, as slim as it might be right now, that Harrison finds his way to the Chargers. The Chargers hold the fifth overall pick, so there are two ways that Harrison ends up playing with Justin Herbert and all but guaranteeing that he’s an immediate candidate for the Pro Bowl: Four quarterbacks go in the top-four or the Chargers trade up.

Harrison slipping past the top four picks is so unexpected that it’s a third place option, but anything could happen.

Harrison on the Chargers would be one way to challenge Puka’s records, but Malik Nabors has something to say about it too. The LSU receiver caught 89 passes for 1,569 yards and 14 touchdowns in 13 games and he should end up as a lock for the top-10. That could pair him with Justin Herbert, which would be great for his numbers, or he may end up with more of a rebuilding team and uncertainty at quarterback.

Also, the Jets have the 10th overall pick and while they’re expected to target offensive line help, you never know if Aaron Rodgers convinces the powers that be to trade up for a second Ohio State weapon next to Garrett Wilson.

Then again, Puka Nacua was the last pick of the fifth round!

The draft is only the draft, it’s how you play on Sundays that matters. And very few players of any level of experience, I don’t care if you’re in the league two years or 10 years, were as good as Puka Nacua this season.

He’s an elite receiver who not even the Rams picked with their first three selections in the fifth round. It took them until their fourth.

So there are a lot of really good receiver prospects in this draft and the next few who are not Harrison or Nabors and they could end up with the opportunity to catch 100-110 passes and gain 1,400-1,500 yards. With 18 games, it feels far more inevitable than potential.

And 18 games is inevitable.

This season was for Puka Nacua and nobody will ever forget what he did. Records or not.