May 23, 2024

Cooper Kupp is an established NFL star, an All-Pro receiver who in 2021 led the league in receptions, yards receiving and touchdown catches.

Puka Nacua is a burgeoning star, a rookie off to a historic start for the Rams in part because of a hamstring injury that sidelined Kupp for the first four games of the season.

So how will coach Sean McVay and quarterback Matthew Stafford blend the two Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles and beyond? It’s an intriguing subplot as the Rams (2-2) prepare to face the defending NFC champion Eagles (4-0).

McVay announced Friday that Kupp would be activated to the roster from injured reserve. It will be Kupp’s first game since suffering a season-ending ankle injury against the Arizona Cardinals on Nov. 13.

“Shoot man, it’s going to be great to be back in SoFi, back playing a game again,” Kupp said after practice. “It’s been a long time since I played in a real football game.”

Early in training camp, Kupp appeared to be fully recovered from ankle surgery. But during a drill, he suffered a right hamstring injury that sidelined for several weeks. Kupp returned in late August for joint practices against the Denver Broncos but suffered a setback and was placed on injured reserve.

Kupp practiced this week without limitations, paving the way for his return to the roster.

“He’s looked like Cooper— which is a good thing,” McVay said during a news conference before practice Friday, adding, “You can’t ever really simulate the game in these practice settings, especially once you get into a quarter of the season.

“But he’s very comfortable, he’s so conscientious, he looks like he’s moving around really well.”

With Kupp sidelined, Nacua emerged as Stafford’s go-to option.

 Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua (17) catches a pass over the middle  against the Indianapolis Colts.

Puka Nacua (17) has been the go-to receiver for Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford through four games this season.

(Zach Bolinger / Associated Press)

The fifth-round draft pick from Brigham Young has been targeted an NFL-leading 52 times. Nacua has a league-best 39 catches for 501 yards, including a 22-yard touchdown in overtime that gave the Rams a 29-23 victory last week in Indianapolis.

Kupp’s return no doubt will affect the number of targets for Nacua. And it poses a challenge, albeit a welcome one, for McVay as Kupp rejoins the offense.

“It’s a balance,” McVay said, adding, “It is good for guys to have complementary skill sets, which I think those two do. … It’s a fun thing to be able to work through.”

the ball around to Kupp, Nacua, Van Jefferson, Tutu Atwell and other receivers will happen “organically,” offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur said.

“The defense a lot of times dictates where that ball goes,” LaFleur said. “I know Puka has been getting a ton of balls, but it’s not like we’ve been saying, ‘Hey, Puka needs 15 catches here for us to win a football game.’

“The ball just finds really good players and that’s been Kupp’s M.O. The ball just finds him, so I’m sure he’ll get his fair share.”

Nacua is looking forward to playing with Kupp. If that means fewer targets, he said, that’s just fine. Kupp’s presence is a calming influence, Nacua said.

“He’s going to dissect the coverage before I do,” Nacua said, chuckling. “It’s like having a cheat code out there, like an extra coach out there. … It makes the game a lot easier.”

Kupp’s return also provides Stafford with more options. Nacua has been the main target, but Jefferson, Atwell and tight end Tyler Higbee also have made plays.

“We have a ton of good receivers at this point so it’s a lot of fun,” Stafford said. “It’s a great thing to try to mix and match and try to find combinations of guys on the field and things that we can do to help those guys play to their strengths.”

Kupp remained a presence during his rehabilitation. At the request of other receivers, he traveled to games at Seattle, Cincinnati and Indianapolis to provide insight and observations. Now he will join them on the field.

“Watching these guys has been so much fun,” he said. “You … have seen what Puka has been doing as a rookie — whether he’s a rookie or not, what he’s doing has been incredible. Just high-level football. And then you got other guys that have played high-level as well.”

McVay indicated that Kupp will not be overloaded Sunday.

“Once he gets going, you want to be smart about it,” McVay said, “but I also know once the game gets going you’re kind of in that moment and so we’ll see how it goes. … It will be a lot of that communication in terms of how he’s feeling as well because he has such a good ability to do that with myself and the rest of our coaches.”

This is not the first time Kupp has returned from injury. In 2018, he suffered a season-ending knee injury. In 2020, he sat out an NFC divisional-round playoff loss because of a knee injury. Last season he missed the final eight games because of the ankle injury. He’s always quickly returned to playing at a high level.

The decision to go on injured reserve before this season was made after Kupp met with experts in Minnesota to examine a right hamstring that he said had “a few issues before.” The time on injured reserve ostensibly enabled Kupp to recover. So he does not anticipate constantly dealing with a hamstring issue.

“You never know how it’s going to go throughout the course of a season — you take things a day at a time, a week at a time,” he said. “But that’s certainly not the expectation I have.”

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