Should Rams Puka Nacua Be Selected Outside of the Top 12 WRs in 2024 Fantasy Football Drafts?

Puka Nacua had a special rookie season -- does that lock him in as a top-10 receiver in 2024? It could, but be careful in assuming that's the case.

Where to rank Los Angeles Rams WR Puka Nacua isn’t as simple as placing him in the top 10 fantasy football rankings and forgetting about it. That might well be the case, but not without first considering some of the potential pitfalls — not to mention the talent at the position.

Where do things stand with the breakout WR as he seeks to repeat his record-breaking production again in 2024?

Puka Nacua’s 2024 Fantasy Football Ranking

He’s already a very good receiver. I won’t deny that. But as we sit here in January, I’m far lower than what appears to be the consensus on the outstanding rookie — something you guys wasted no time in letting me know on social media.

That’s the beauty of fantasy football — no one is right or wrong right now.

We all have our own opinions, and we will spend the next seven months hammering them out to a point where we feel good about them come draft day.

Is my WR17 ranking of Nacua wrong? Maybe… maybe not. You, the people, deserve some context as to how I got there. And I’m nothing if not a man of the people, so here we go.

Nacua’s Outlier Performance

There have been 14 instances since 2000 in which a rookie receiver caught 75+ passes. Nacua was one of three to do it this season (Kansas City Chiefs WR Rashee Rice and Baltimore Ravens WR Zay Flowers are the others), all of whom will not count into the following data as they don’t have future seasons to measure.

Of the remaining 11, four displayed elite athleticism entering the league in terms of leaping ability (37.5” vertical or greater), while seven checked in under 37” (the rough average for a receiver at this level).

I measured the change in fantasy production (half-PPR) from standout rookie seasons to their next three seasons (in instances where the player has yet to play four NFL seasons, I simply used all of the data available).

  • Average high leaper among these rookies: 4.5% increase in production short-term
  • Average among the more grounded rookies: 13.6% decline in production short-term

The sample size isn’t huge, but it’s interesting. These grounded options (sub-37” vertical leap) averaged 33.5% fewer fantasy points per game in the coming seasons than the high leapers.

That’s not to say these lesser athletes can’t produce at a high level (New Orleans Saints WR Michael Thomas falls into this bucket, and he saw his production improve by 14.8% following his strong introduction to the NFL).

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But the fact that five of seven saw a dip in production as the league adjusted to them is noteworthy given that Nacua profiles as such an option. The BYU WR had just a 33″ vertical jump at his pro day leading into the 2023 NFL Draft.

That’s more of a macro view. Now, it’s time to look more into the micro-dynamics of this specific situation in Los Angeles. WR Cooper Kupp missed the first four games of 2023, so let’s pick up the data after that. I decided to slice Nacua’s numbers from the first three games with Kupp and after that point.

Weeks 5-7

  • Targeted on 30.3% of routes
  • 37% target share
  • 38% reception share

For reference, he was essentially Las Vegas Raiders WR Davante Adams in terms of usage as Kupp was being worked back in. This season, Adams was targeted on 30.2% of his routes, earning a league-high 33% target share and a 29.6% reception share in the process.

Weeks 8-17

  • Targeted on 25.1% of routes
  • 24.9% target share
  • 22.5% reception share

In the second half of the season, Nacua was similar to 2023 Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin (targeted on 23.2% of routes, 23.6% target share, 22.8% reception share). I’m not saying Godwin was playing alongside a receiver born in 1993 who was a top-10 receiver in 2021 like Nacua, but I’m not saying that’s not the case.

I think it’s safe to say we all love Rams RB Kyren Williams moving forward. There were four teams (plus LAR) last season that finished with a top 12 points per game running back and had multiple receivers that fantasy managers were starting on a consistent basis when healthy (San Francisco 49ers, Miami Dolphins, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Cincinnati Bengals).

If we take the per-game finishes of the WRs involved in such situations, we are looking at an average of WR19. Obviously, the 49ers (sum WR ranking: 25) and Dolphins (24) were on the high end of this study along with the Rams (32), while the Jaguars (59) and Bengals (52) were on the other side.

Do I think it’s more likely that the Nacua/Kupp tandem trends toward the 49ers WR Brandon Aiyuk/Deebo Samuel and Dolphins WR Jaylen Waddle/Tyreek Hill situations? I do, but there’s no denying that there is risk involved in investing heavily in a co-WR1 in an offense that features a QB at the tail end of his career, in addition to an elite producer at the RB position.

And that’s the idea on which my ranking of Nacua rests. Not that I think he is destined to fail or that what we saw this season wasn’t encouraging, but the idea of managing risk, even if you view it as unlikely.

With Williams ascending, Kupp healing, and QB Matthew Stafford aging, this isn’t as bulletproof of a case as most are making it out to be, in my opinion.

As for the names I have ranked ahead of him…

49ers WR Aiyuk: Yards per route run up 59.4% from a strong 2022 season

Dolphins WR Waddle: 87.5% career catch rate between the hashes, and over the past two seasons, he has been a member of the 55-5-55 club on deep passes. That is: 55 deep targets, five deep touchdowns, and a 55% deep catch rate (the other: Tyreek Hill, CeeDee Lamb, Justin Jefferson, and DeVonta Smith)

Los Angeles Chargers WR Keenan Allen: More upside at the QB position and posted similar rates as Nacua in 2023.

  • Nacua: Targeted on 28% of routes, 9.1 aDOT, 8.1% drop rate, 0.9 red-zone target/game
  • Allen: Targeted on 28.6% of routes, 9.7 aDOT, 4% drop rate, 1.0 red-zone target/game

Buffalo Bills WR Stefon Diggs: Could he land elsewhere? There is no shortage of risk here and, if one player is going to drop, it’s him. I worry that Diggs has lost a step, but the spike in slot production elevates his floor to a point where the return to WR1 form is at least possible if what we saw down the stretch was the result of a new system and/or a nagging injury of some kind.

Indianapolis Colts WR Michael Pittman Jr.: I have no issue betting on Pittman if he remains in Indy, but the thought of him moving to a ready-made situation is enticing. His usage rates with an average passer (at best) in Gardner Minshew were downright bonkers — if he lands with a QB who is proven to be above average, I might not be high enough.

With Minshew:

  • 31.4% target share
  • 29.6% target rate
  • 71.6% catch rate

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Rams WR Kupp: I addressed Kupp earlier. Nacua looked great this season, but I’m not yet ready to admit that we know that he has surpassed Kupp in the hierarchy of this WR room. There are some concerns (targets per route being the primary one), but his YAC and aDOT were in line with his 2021 numbers, and I’m not ready to dismiss him as a potential league winner.

Raiders WR Adams: The Raiders were 25th or worse in completion percentage, interception rate, yards per attempt, and passer rating — those flaws resulted in Adams only giving us 103 catches and eight scores.

49ers WR Samuel: I have long-term concerns given his style of play (not much different than QB Cam Newton in his heyday), but I’m not running away from him yet. He gave us a career-high in TD receptions this season and has at least three scores on the ground in every season in which he has played at least half.

New York Jets WR Garrett Wilson: With about as little help at the quarterback position as anyone, Wilson has the same number of catches through two seasons as Philadelphia Eagles WR DeVonta Smith did while having more receiving yards than Tennessee Titans WR DeAndre Hopkins or Chargers WR Allen did through their first two campaigns.

Saints WR Chris Olave: He was one of 12 receivers in 2023 to average at least 8.5 targets per game. Compared to the other 11, he averaged 41% fewer red-zone targets per game. What we saw from Olave was fine — what we will see from him has the potential to be special.

Eagles WR AJ Brown: His up-and-down nature keeps him out of my top tier, but with over 1,400 receiving yards in both Philadelphia seasons, the physical profile and connection with Jalen Hurts is too much to overlook.

Bengals WR Ja’Marr Chase: The combination of floor and ceiling when QB Joe Burrow is under center is impressive. His aDOT has dipped each season, a tweak in a role that has resulted in an ever-improving catch rate. Combine that with an average touchdown length of 31.9 yards, and he can be a league-winner in 2024.

Tier 1, no explanation needed:

With the fantasy football season behind us, why not start preparing for your rookie drafts with our dynasty rookie rankings? Additionally, as you look to improve your team heading into 2024, our dynasty trade calculator can help you find the perfect deal to boost your championship chances.

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