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How Puka Nacua Can Extend the LA Rams’ Title Window

The emergence of wide receiver Puka Nacua will allow the Rams to not spend as much on skill position players.

The Los Angeles Rams traded all of their their first round picks from 2017 to 2023 in order to win Super Bowl 56 in February 2022. But by going all-in on winning the franchise’s first title since 2000, they were always going to reach a point where mortgaging the future would, in fact, impact the future.

The Rams crashed back to earth hard last season, going 5-12 with quarterback Matthew Stafford missing eight games, wide receiver Cooper Kupp missing eight games, and defensive tackle Aaron Donald missing six games. In the process, Los Angeles finished 27th in points scored per game and 21st in points allowed. The team was straight up bad, spurring questions as to whether head coach Sean McVay would stay with the team — he did — and whether the franchise would undergo a full roster teardown or rebuild in the offseason.

It didn’t, but the Rams did trade pricey veterans. Wide receiver Robert Woods was dealt to Tennessee in March 2022, cornerback Jalen Ramsey went to Miami in March for tight end Hunter Long and a third rounder, and wide receiver Allen Robinson headed to Pittsburgh in April in a seventh-round pick swap. That seemingly left L.A. with subpar depth at wide receiver behind Kupp and 2021 second round pick Tutu Atwell.

Enter Puka Nacua.

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The fifth round pick (177th overall) out of BYU leads the NFL through two weeks with 25 receptions and is second with 266 receiving yards, helping the Rams to a 1-1 start. Nacua’s 15 receptions against the 49ers is the most in a single game for a rookie in NFL history and he’s the first player in league history with at least 10 receptions and 100 yards receiving in each of his first two career games.

Other significant milestones for the Utah native:

  • Nacua is the fifth player in NFL history with at least 10/100 in the first two games of any season, joining Kupp (2022), Miles Austin (2010), Isaac Bruce (1998), and Andre Rison (1994). He joins Rison and Michael Thomas as the only players with 25 catches in their first two games of a season.
  • His 25 receptions is the most for a player in his first two games ever, shattering Earl Cooper’s 19 in 1980.
  • The only players besides Nacua to have 100+ receiving yards in each of their first two career games were Will Fuller (2016), DeSean Jackson (2008), and Don Looney (1940).

Late-round picks on offense like Nacua, 2022 fifth round pick Kyren Williams at running back, and 2021 fifth round wide receiver Ben Skorownek alleviated the need for Rams general manager Les Snead to spend big on skill position players aside from Kupp, who signed a three-year, $80 million extension in June 2022 that was restructured over the summer.

The Rams will need to save on the margins moving forward. Stafford’s extension will give him a raise from $20 million in 2023 to $49.5 million in 2024. Kupp’s salary goes from $17.3 million to $29.7, offensive linemen Rob Havenstein and Joseph Noteboom get significant salary bumps, and Donald’s salary goes from $26 million to $34.1 million. A lot of those raises will be offset by just over $64 million in dead cap space on Robinson, Ramsey, Leonard Floyd, Bobby Wagner, Andrew Whitworth, and A’Shawn Robinson.

Having a solid quartet of Kupp, Nacua, Atwell, and Skorownek means Snead won’t need to spend big money to retain upcoming free agents like receivers Van Jefferson and Demarcus Robinson, and tight end Tyler Higbee, whose 72 receptions last season ranked fifth at the position.

Spotrac projects the Rams to have $51.8 million in 2024 cap space, the 10th-highest total in the league. Improved production from unexpected places like Puka Nacua allows L.A. to retain key players like Stafford, Kupp, and Donald without the total teardown many envisioned. It extends the Rams’ competitive window and continues Snead’s run of excellent late-round draft picks on offense, continuing the NFC West’s run as one of the league’s most intriguing divisions.

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