Since arriving at the team’s facility after the Los Angeles Rams selected him in the fifth round of this year’s draft, receiver Puka Nacua has quickly adjusted to life in the NFL and head coach Sean McVay’s precise passing offense.
With star receiver Cooper Kupp on injured reserve for the first four weeks of the regular season with a lingering hamstring injury, Nacua has helped to fill the void. From the team’s perspective, few were surprised based on his performance in offseason work and training camp.
However, the way in which the BYU product announced his arrival to the NFL was stunning. Against one of the better secondaries in the league, Nacua finished with 10 catches for 119 yards on 15 targets in a surprising road win over the Seattle Seahawks in Week 1.
Nacua has picked up McVay’s complex offense quickly and is serving as the team’s go-to receiver with Kupp out.
“Puka Nacua has come in and he’s as mature a rookie as I’ve ever been around,” McVay said. “And he is a physical, tough, strong player. He’s got a great way about himself.”
Through diligent work and a lot of reps, Nacua has earned the trust of quarterback Matthew Stafford. In the game against Seattle, more than 40 percent of Stafford’s passes went in Nacua’s direction.
“It didn’t really start in training camp. It started the second he got drafted here and was in OTAs,” Stafford told reporters when asked about his connection with Nacua. “I spent a bunch of time in OTAs working with him, spent time in between OTAs and training camp throwing to him. Spent a bunch of time during training camp, just reps. And his understanding of the game comes really natural to him.”
Much like Kupp, Nacua is a mid-round pick from a less-highlighted West Coast Division I school that did not regularly play against elite-level competition. The 6-foot-2, 201-pound Nacua ran a 4.55 40 at BYU’s pro day, so there was some question if he had enough speed to consistently get open at the NFL level.
However, like Kupp, Nacua has an innate ability to separate at the top of the route and is physical at the catch point, allowing him to win contested catches. And he also can make plays after the catch. Nacua also proved an effective blocker in the run game against Seattle’s defensive backs.
Nacua said that Kupp has been there to help all along the way.
“Coop’s been like a second coach out there,” Nacua said. “It’s always nice to have him out on the field. … When we’re coming back to check the iPads, he’s the first one there to either say good job, or this is what I’m seeing and what I’m looking at. Coop’s the man. I love that guy. I feel like I’m blessed to be in this situation.”
Nacua’s big day leads this week’s NFC West Stock Watch.
The Rams did a good job of attacking the middle of the field against Seattle’s defense. According to Next Gen Stats, Nacua was targeted 15 times in his NFL debut, the most by a rookie in Week 1 over the past eight seasons (44.1% target rate). He had most of his production come in the short area (0-9 air yards), where he caught 6-of-9 targets for 64 yards.
Nacua has been one of the most picked-up players in fantasy football this week because of his success in Week 1. He’ll face a tougher test Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, who boost one of the best defensive fronts in the league and a talented second level of defense led by All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner.
The third-round kicker out of Michigan struggled in the preseason, missing two field goals and an extra point. Along with that, Moody suffered a strained quad, creating concern about his ability to execute going into Week 1 for a team built to win the Super Bowl.
Moody put those questions to rest by going 3-for-3 on field goals, with a long of 41 yards, and making all his extra points in San Francisco’s blowout of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Aiyuk continues to show that he has developed into a No. 1 receiver in San Francisco’s offense, catching all eight targets Brock Purdy threw his way for 129 yards and two scores. For his effort, Aiyuk earned NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
Aiyuk was particularly successful against veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson, who had predicted he would get an interception against Purdy. According to Next Gen Stats, Aiyuk caught all three receptions for 43 yards and two touchdowns with Peterson on him.
Voted the Comeback Player of the Year last season, Smith earned a big payday for turning around his career. But his struggles in his team’s disappointing loss to the Rams continued a troubling trend from the second half of last season. Smith finished 16-of-26 for 112 yards, with a touchdown and no interceptions against Los Angeles. He was sacked twice and posted an 84.1 passer rating. In the second half, Smith had just nine passing yards.
Since Week 10 of last season, Smith has completed 66% of his passes for 2,448 yards, with 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions for a 94.3 passer rating. The Seahawks are 3-7 in those contests.
He signed a three-year, 51.3 million deal in free agency this offseason to help ignite Seattle’s pass rush. But Jones finished with just three combined tackles and no sacks or quarterback hits in his team’s loss to the Rams. The Seahawks did not sack Stafford and finished with just two quarterback hits on 38 passing attempts.
Making Seahawks fans even more frustrated, the player Seattle passed on in the first round of this year’s draft, DT Jalen Carter, recorded six pressures and a sack on 32 pass rushes in his NFL debut for the Philadelphia Eagles. According to Next Gen Stats, that tied for the most pressures by any rookie defensive tackle in a game over the past five seasons.
Seattle’s first-round pick, cornerback Devon Witherspoon, did not play in Week 1 because of a lingering hamstring issue he has been dealing with for the past month.
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It’s probably unfair to expect much from Dobbs in Week 1 since he joined the team just a few weeks ago. But in his first start for Arizona, he finished 21-of-30 for 132 yards, with no touchdowns and no interceptions for a 78.8 passer rating.
Even with Arizona’s defense creating three turnovers against Washington, it will be hard for the seemingly tanking Cardinals to win games if Dobbs and the offense don’t perform better.
Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.
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