Why Rams WR Puka Nacua won Sporting News’ NFL Rookie of the Year over C.J. Stroud

C.J. Stroud had a solid rookie season as the Texans starting quarterback, but Puka Nacua had a spectacular rookie season as the Rams’ new top wide receiver — and that’s why he was the easy players’ choice for Sporting News’ NFL Rookie of the Year in 2023.

After polling players around the league, Nacua was the runaway winner of the award. While the Associated Press hands out separate honors for Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year, it’s more impressive that Nacua was voted as the best rookie, period, by his peers.

While Stroud stacked up well with the best rookie QB seasons, including getting his team to the playoffs and helping it win a wild-card game, Nacua did two things no rookie wideout has ever done before (on top of sparking the Rams to a surprise playoff berth).

SN’s NFL Rookie of the Year 2023: Why Puka Nacua won

Nacua, with his 105 catches on 160 targets, broke the rookie receptions record previously set by the Dolphins’ Jaylen Waddle (104) in 2021. Nacua also posted 1,486 receiving yards, breaking the long-standing rookie record held by late Oilers legend Bill Groman (1,473) in 1960. He also added six TDs. 

Stroud was superb with 23 TDs, five INTs, 4,108 yards passing, 8.2 yards per attempt, a league-high 273.9 yards per game, and a 100.8 passer rating. For that effort in a well-schemed Texans offense, there’s a fair chance Stroud beats out Nacua for AP OROY. The media voters do give a little more weight to quarterbacks, given the difficulty of playing well right away at the position.

In most years, Stroud would have been a slam-dunk winner sweeping the rookie honors. Then again, Nacua can also make that claim after his historically dominant season. 

Another argument in Nacua’s favor is the fact he played all 17 games. Stroud missed two late for the Texans while battling a concussion. Given the voting cycle ending in early January for SN’s award, the timing of that absence didn’t help Stroud in the players’ minds.

The bottom line is that Nacua also plays for a glossy Rams team that got a little more national attention than the Texans. Nacua also went in and played well in the absence of Cooper Kupp early, taking off early and continuing his stellar, record-breaking trajectory working with Kupp through Week 18.

Stroud had moderate expectations as the No. 2 overall pick to have a good rookie year. Nacua, as a fifth-round pick (No. 177 overall) out of BYU, had zero expectations beyond providing some receiving depth for Matthew Stafford. Instead, Nacua became the go-to guy all over the field for a QB who’s thrown to Kupp and Calvin Johnson often in his career.

Finally, Stroud put together some strong tape with some big games as a rookie, but Nacua had more highlight-reel plays that more players would have noticed outside of their games, which can’t be discounted as a major voting factor.

Nacua’s unheralded legend grew early when he scored a walkoff TD against the Colts in overtime in Week 4, capping off a 10-catch, 163-yard performance. Nacua topped that with a 164-yard effort against the Saints in Week 16. He ended up averaging 14.2 yards per catch as a consistent big-play threat who, in the end, started to draw the massive coverage attention that used to go to Kupp.

From wire to wire, Nacua’s rookie season was more prolific in relation to past rookies at his position than Stroud’s was. Stroud will still end up with hardware and be recognized for being one of the top rookie QBs, but Nacua is now in the same breath as Rady Moss as the best-ever rookie wide receiver.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *