2023 Rams Draft: Puka Nacua fits Robert Woods mold in McVay offense

Injuries ravaged the Los Angeles Rams’ reception hall last season. Nobody, including All-Pro Cooper Kupp, was safe as multiple pass-catchers missed a lot of time in 2022. With that in mind, the Rams had to be receivers at some point in the draft and made it to considerably with the final pick of 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. While Nacua may have a concerning injury history himself, there’s no denying the role he can play in attacking Sean McVay when healthy. Plus, his name is super fun to say! I’ll cover Nacua’s production at BYU, understanding why he was able to fall so far in the draft and what his role in LA’s 23 offense could be.

Husky out of the water before becoming a powerful playmaker at BYU

Puka Nacua became a stud with Brigham Young, but that road to stardom began with a rough patch with the Washington Huskies. Between his first- and second-year campaigns, Nacua played in 11 games, with 16 catches for 319 yards and three scores. The Huskies didn’t chase him out of the backfield once, wasting a golden opportunity to maximize his dynamic skills. After a COVID-shortened 2020 season, the young point guard was 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 regularly showed his great game specialty as he averaged more than 15 yards per reception.

Part of what makes Nacua’s game so elusive is how well he could become an all-around receiver. While his career tree was fairly limited at BYU, to put it mildly, his raw talent alone could be deadly on a pro level once he figures out the right way to harness it. Not only does he have remarkable speed that can be used in multiple positions, but he also has excellent positional awareness on the pitch. This sideline hitch against Baylor in 2021 illustrates Nacua’s ability to locate the ball in the air and adapt to it on the fly:

Nacua has recorded seven games with over 100 receiving yards. The most memorable coming against Boise State his last season where he had the game of his life. At Albertsons Stadium one evening in late November, 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 last one with just under two minutes to play broke the hearts of the poor Broncos.

Puka was an absolute threat against any defensive cover he faced. However, he was particularly dangerous when facing area coverage. In the analytical community, Yards per Route Run or (YPRR) in the NCAA is a statistic that shows how many receiving yards a player has on any particular route they travel, on average. Among all wide receivers in the NFL Draft, Nacua ranked second in YPRR vs. 22-zone coverage.

That means if the BYU product can find hotspots against zonal coverage in the NFL, it’s more than capable of blasting the top of a defense and making it pay.

Break down injury history

Injuries are an unfortunate aspect of football and often one (or two) serious ones can put a damper on a prospect’s professional dreams. Obviously, that’s a known fact in the NFL, which makes it all the more difficult for a player like Puka Nacua to make a name for himself right away.

During his first season in Washington, Nacua broke his foot eight times. Then with the Cougars his senior year, he missed four games overall, suffering minor injuries against USF and Wyoming respectively. Nacua and his compatriot best receiver Gunner Romney in particular missed a Saturday night game where BYU hosted No. 9-ranked Baylor. After the previous week’s game against South Florida, Nacua sprained his ankle and was seen wearing a walking boot in the blowout victory.

Again, injuries are a part of football and it will be an issue for the Rams to watch. Sometimes it’s those nagging injuries that follow these youngsters into the pros that can greatly derail what they can do on the pitch until they’re fully or close to full health.

The second coming of Bobby Trees?

From 2017 to 2021, Robert Woods was one of the NFL’s most effective and underrated receivers. He led McVay’s offense to perfection, especially the throwing sweeps as demonstrated in a 2020 home game against the 49ers:

During his weather in los angeles before being sent to the Titans, Woods rushed 70 times for 485 yards and five touchdowns. This threat was not seen as much on offense last season. Jet sweeps were rare due to injuries, but they could make a comeback with Puka Nacua in the fold. During his two years at BYU, Nacua rushed the ball 39 times for 357 yards and five rushing touchdowns. Putting the ball in the hands of the rookie could stress any defense as he is such a weapon in open space.

This aspect of his style of play should excite Los Angeles fans given that McVay may finally have another Robert Woods prototype to use in his offense. Nacua clearly has the speed and experience as a blocker that will do wonders for him. It’s no wonder those among the fanbase treat the BYU product as the second coming of Bobby Trees.

As for Puka’s role in the Los Angeles offense in his rookie year, I expect him to start on special teams while McVay decides to give him progressive roles throughout the season. ‘offensive. My bet is that Nacua will be used more in the running game/on the throwing sweeps than in the passing game. His speed and YAC ability are evident, but his skills as a receiver will need time to develop as he transitions into the pros. Once he gains a bigger role in attack, it will be difficult to drop him from the starting lineup. Until that day arrives, watch these Robert Woods clips and imagine Puka Nacua in his place. That day could come sooner rather than later.

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