Puka Power: L.A.’s Newest Underdog Hero

12/20/2023 Puka Power: L.A.’s Newest Underdog Hero

By: Marissa Kasch

How Rams Rookie WR Puka Nacua Came From Nowhere & Into the NFL Spotlight 

LeBron James called his fellow L.A.-based athlete “Puka Doncic,” and that’s a compliment, as well as hilarious. The Rams rookie wideout is a stat-stuffing machine, so we’re here to round out 2023 with a feature on one of the best rookie campaigns in NFL history.


The Rams entered this season with a lot of questions after losing Cooper Kupp for four weeks to a hamstring injury. In 2022, Kupp was a fantasy monster before going down with a high-ankle sprain in Week 10. The Rams won only two of their seven games after his injury last season, leaving many wondering how they planned to compensate for his absence. It seemed all hope was lost for Matthew Stafford and the Rams to begin this season until an unlikely hero emerged from the shadows. Now, it’s hard to imagine the Rams’ offense without Puka Nacua.


The Underdog the Rams Needed

Puka Nacua plays a pivotal role in the Rams offense, but expectations for his performance haven’t always been so lofty. Nacua was the No. 177 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. He clocked a 4.57 in the 40-yard dash and emerged from BYU and Washington with an extensive injury history, which may have been why he was overlooked by so many teams.


Nacua was drafted by the Rams in the fifth round, and that gave him something to prove: He had to show others he was more than his draft position. He had to show Rams fans he could keep the offense afloat in the absence of their star receiver. He did, and he’s still doing it. Since his debut, Nacua has been breaking records and proving skeptics wrong. While scouts were once concerned about his speed, he clocked 21.05 mph on a play this season (the sixth-fastest speed registered for the year). Others were concerned about his offensive reliability. He’s responded with 135 targets for 87 receptions, topping players like Travis Kelce and Davante Adams. Still, others were concerned about his productivity. Nacua silenced these doubts with 1,163 yards – ranking sixth among NFL receivers this season. Through 14 games, Nacua has vastly outperformed his draft position and solidified himself as one of the leaders for Rookie of the Year. Only Texans QB C.J. Stroud has made a better pitch for the award, and Stroud was the No. 2 pick, and a quarterback.


A Cooper Clone?

Cooper Kupp was so dominant in his 2021 and 2022 seasons that there was no way to substitute for his greatness. Luckily, the transition from Kupp to Nacua as the team’s No. 1 receiver was more seamless than anybody had anticipated. Both receivers are 6-foot-2. Nacua weighs in at 205 pounds – only 11 more than Kupp. In Kupp’s absence, Nacua was able to step in and fulfill his role in an almost identical fashion. At first, Nacua and Kupp playing together came with questions about how they would work in tandem.


Nacua was actually on pace to break the records from Kupp’s 2021 triple-crown season after those first four games, but he was not to be a permanent replacement for Kupp. Instead, he took on a role very similar to Robert Woods in 2021 – a role that proved to be highly effective in the Rams’ offense. Like Woods, Nacua has been very effective on the slant route this season. He also rarely lines up in the slot with the return of Kupp, allowing Los Angeles to diversify its offense. Above all, he’s the role player the Rams desperately needed: He’s willing to get involved in the run game and has been exceptionally good at blocking this season, opening up more opportunities for Kyren Williams.


Merging Roles

During Kupp’s injury, Nacua was averaging nearly 10 receptions and 125 yards per game. Since Kupp’s return, Nacua’s production has been halved, which isn’t surprising. Even so, he is performing at nearly the same rate as Kupp, side-by-side. In the 10 games since his return, Kupp has averaged 4.9 receptions and 65.8 yards per game , while Nacua has averaged 4.8 receptions and 66.2 yards per game.


Though Nacua was thrown into the fire without warning, he quickly established himself as one of the NFL’s top receivers. Sean McVay appreciates the versatility of Nacua’s game and his aggressive playing style, joking that he may have choked out Rams GM Les Snead if he had passed up the biggest steal of the draft. Though the Rams currently sit at 7-7, Nacua has vitalized the offense and made a compelling case for Rookie of the Year. He likely won’t end up with the award due to Stroud’s numbers, but there’s some Puka hype building in Los Angeles. This late-round pick underdog will be fun to watch for years to come.


Read More

ESPN: Inside the Record-Breaking Rise of Rams Rookie Puka Nacua

CBS Sports: Rams Rookie WR Puka Nacua Breaks NFL Record for Most Receptions Through First 8 Games

LA Times: C.J. Stroud Isn’t the Only Rookie Chasing Records — Don’t Sleep on Puka Nacua


Photo: Harry How / Getty Images