June 16, 2024

Puka Nacua has learned valuable lessons during his record-setting rookie season, which has featured dozens of catches — and corresponding hits absorbed and delivered.

How does the Rams receiver deal with the sometimes-painful days after?

“Motion is lotion,” Nacua said.

Nacua’s physical playing style, and the weekly aftermath, supplied him with a new appreciation for cold tubs and other rehabilitative resources. But the best way to play through bumps and bruises, he said, is to not sit still, even on days off.

“Movement does help,” Nacua said.

Early in the season, with star receiver Cooper Kupp on injured reserve because of a hamstring injury, Nacua rocketed to the top of the NFL receiving list. Quarterback Matthew Stafford looked for Nacua early and often, and the fifth-round draft pick produced three 100-yard receiving efforts in his first four games.

Nacua’s statistical performances cooled upon Kupp’s return, but with 69 catches he ranks ninth in the NFL. His 987 yards rank sixth.

Kupp did not practice Wednesday because of an ankle injury suffered during Sunday’s 17-16 victory over the Seattle Seahawks, a win that ended a three-game losing streak and improved the Rams’ record to 4-6. If Kupp does not play Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, Nacua could again become the undisputed go-to receiver.

The question is how long can the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Nacua endure his physical playing style?

This week he was nursing a shoulder issue, the latest byproduct of his physical play.

“I love playing the game that way,” he said. “That’s how I was raised. But it definitely has its pros and cons.”

Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua celebrates his touchdown catch against the Eagles.

Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua celebrates his touchdown catch against the Eagles.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Nacua, as with many rookies, already has completed more than the equivalent of a college season. The Rams played three preseason games and have played 10 regular-season games. They will play at least seven more, with the playoffs also still a possibility.

Collisions in the NFL are “way different” than in college, said Nacua, who played at Washington and Brigham Young.

“Just the consistency of them,” Nacua said. “I definitely wasn’t blocking defensive ends in college. As much as I think I was a physical player, there’s no chance they were asking me to block the Nick Bosas of the world and stuff like that.

“It’s definitely been a little different.”

Nacua, 22, has embraced the role, and the physical presence he brings to the offense is “a tremendous asset and value,” coach Sean McVay said. But it also presents a challenge: How does he not curb Nacua’s style while being cognizant of keeping him physically sound for the entire season?

“I don’t have the answer quite yet,” McVay said. “You want to continue to allow his greatest traits to come to life, but be smart about how that’s reflected. Now, he’s delivering a lot of punishment himself, but that takes a toll on you.

“I’ve been really impressed with his ability to be a pro about getting his body turned over week in and week out.”

Nacua “loves having the ball in his hands” and scoring touchdowns, and also “loves the physical contact aspect,” offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur said. When LaFleur watches replays of the games, he is struck by the close-ups of Nacua.

“His face looks like he’s in a certain zone that not a lot of people can get into,” LaFleur said.

Last Sunday, the cameras found Nacua after he caught a second-quarter touchdown pass, and after using second effort on a jet sweep to pick up a first down during the game-winning drive.

For a rookie, Nacua is “about as comfortable as I’ve ever seen somebody,” Stafford said. The 15th-year pro does not want Nacua to change his physical play and tone-setting ways.

“As he gets more and more comfortable in the game, he’ll find his opportunities to try to stay up on his feet,” Stafford said, adding, “I’m sure his body feels not great on certain days, but he’s been able to show up for us, and that’s huge.”

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