Puka Nacua is a difference-making rookie and that's an unfortunate rarity for the Rams
Thu, Nov 9, 2023
NFL News (AP)
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) - No receiver has ever started an NFL career as impressively as Puka Nacua, who caught a record 25 passes in his first two games for the Los Angeles Rams and shattered the league's single-game receptions mark for a rookie in September.
The fifth-round pick has slowed down only moderately since his spectacular debut month, becoming a household football name and a twin pillar of the Rams' offense with Cooper Kupp.
Yet Nacua has kept an upbeat mentality and a clear humbleness amid his burgeoning NFL stardom. That's the result of being the youngest of six brothers - and of spending his days in a Rams locker room where his teammates love to take "Puka Doncic" down a peg or two.
"Yeah, that's one nickname," Nacua said with a grin. "I'm really not a vocal guy in the locker room, so it's fun when we're all in a group. I don't speak up and say too much. I'm more like somebody who wants to do the work and help the team that way. I like to have fun with the guys, but I want to make more of an impact on the field."
Nacua was the 20th receiver drafted last spring, chosen with the very last pick of the fifth round, 177th overall. He was the 34th-fastest receiver at the NFL combine, which clearly played a role in the draft slip of a precise, physical wideout with a knack for getting open in any circumstances.
Nacua's selection is also a commendation of the Rams' draft work, which otherwise hasn't produced the results that probably would have been necessary to keep Los Angeles in championship contention for the past two seasons.
The Rams are 3-6 at their bye week, with a three-game losing streak and an 8-18 overall record since winning the Super Bowl in early 2022.
Rams general manager Les Snead has famously used his premium draft capital since the franchise came home to Los Angeles to acquire established superstars from Von Miller and Jalen Ramsey to current quarterback Matthew Stafford. While Snead hasn't made a first-round pick since 2016, he has made plenty of lower-round picks - but not enough have grown into stars to avoid the franchise reset that the Rams are undergoing this year.
In fact, Nacua is looking like the Rams' best choice in the past six drafts since Kupp arrived in 2017.
While Los Angeles has made a few other good picks - starting safety Jordan Fuller in the sixth round in 2020, edge rusher Byron Young and promising nose tackle Kobie Turner in the third round last spring - far more of the Rams' picks haven't been standouts or even earned regular playing time.
The Rams' hit ratio isn't wildly out of proportion to the success of other franchises, but when a team goes seven years with no first-round picks and only six second-round picks, it's more imperative to find hidden gems in the lower rounds like Nacua - or even just steady starters like Fuller.
It hasn't happened enough for the Rams, who will need a late-season surge to avoid consecutive losing seasons since their Super Bowl triumph.
Nacua has been the Rams' brightest spot, both in their recent draft history and their season in general.
Despite catching just six passes in the past two games while Stafford went down with a thumb injury, Nacua hits the bye week fourth in the NFL with 64 receptions and 827 yards receiving. He has 16 receptions of at least 20 yards, tied for the NFL lead.
He's also third with 96 targets, indicating his fundamental importance to the Rams' offense after only nine games. Nacua got 39 of those targets in Los Angeles' first four games before Kupp returned from a training camp injury.
"He hasn't reached his peak in terms of comfortability yet, and when he does that, who knows where he could go," Rams offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur said. "But not really worried about that. Just keep coming out with that same energy, that same style of play that he plays with. It's awesome for our squad to have a guy like that."
Nacua grew up as a tackling dummy for his older brothers in their backyards in the Las Vegas area and in Utah, where his Samoan mother and Hawaiian father - who died in 2012 - raised their family of six sons and one daughter in both states' large Pacific Islander diasporas. He even played left tackle growing up while his older brother was their team's quarterback, but he moved to receiver shortly before high school.
"I liked scoring touchdowns, so I wanted the ball in my hands if I could get it," Nacua said.
Nacua played two years at Washington, but transferred to Brigham Young in 2021 when his grandmother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. He finished his career alongside his brother Samson, and showed off formidable talent when healthy.
He joined the Rams with little fanfare, but has set off fireworks ever since. Rams cornerback Derion Kendrick started calling him "Puka Doncic" in training camp, and even LeBron James repeated the nickname last month while making an Instagram video giving his NFL picks.
Nacua represents the upside in a second disappointing season for a team that had few bad times in Sean McVay's first half-decade in charge. Nacua seems likely to be a key to the Rams' hopes of getting out of this rut, either in this season or the next.
"I'm just lucky to be on a team with Matthew and with a guy like Sean calling the plays," Nacua said. "I know that's great for a receiver, and I just want to help them any way I can."
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