John Harbaugh may be the only NFL head coach other than Sean McVay not surprised by Puka Nacua’s rapid rise. Harbaugh admitted he had the Los Angeles Rams’ rookie wide receiver “way up” on the board for the Baltimore Ravens ahead of the 2023 NFL draft.
Speaking ahead of the trip to L.A. on Sunday, December 10, Harbaugh said, “Oh yeah, I liked him. He was one of my highest-rated guys. You can ask anybody here. Ask the wide receiver coach, ask the scouts. He was way up on my board. He’s playing exactly how I thought he would, for the record,” per Ryan Mink of Ravens.com.
The Ravens ultimately chose another prospect in Round 5, but McVay’s Rams struck gold when they selected Nacua 177th overall. Nacua’s been an instant hit, compiling 1,029 receiving yards through 12 games of a sensational rookie season.
He has the chance to show the Ravens what they missed when they host the Rams at M&T Bank Stadium in Week 14. Nacua has been dealing with a shoulder injury, but McVay offered an update that should worry the Ravens, revealing the player “did everything,” despite being listed as “limited” during practice on Wednesday, December 6, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
If Nacua’s full go, the former BYU standout’s double act with Cooper Kupp will be a problem for Baltimore’s league-leading defense. One All-Pro is already aware of the danger.
John Harbaugh, Ravens Made Rare Draft Miss
The Ravens are noted for their draft success, but passing on Nacua counts as a rare miss. Harbaugh and general manager Eric DeCosta settled on cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly 20 picks before Nacua’s named was called.
Nacua’s impressive numbers owe a lot to how he’s beating defenses at two levels. The 22-year-old has averaged 8.2 yards before catch per reception and 5.2 yards after catch, per Pro Football Reference.
He’s stretching the field, while also turning short catches into longer gains. Those qualities would have dovetailed superbly with the Ravens’ top draft pick, wideout Zay Flowers.
The latter has also thrived as a rookie, snagging 58 receptions for 613 yards and a pair of touchdowns. A Flowers and Nacua double act would have transformed the Ravens’ passing attack and given quarterback Lamar Jackson bookend playmakers for the next decade.
That’s hindsight, but it’s the Rams who have the dynamic tandem envied by most of the league.
Puka Nacua and Cooper Kupp Are Ravens’ Focus in Week 14
Nacua and Kupp present an array of challenges, and Marlon Humphrey is aware of all of them. The three-time Pro Bowl cornerback explained how “they find really good ways to get open. They can beat man coverage, they’re really good in zone. Those two guys together, it’s kind of hard. Which one do you want to try to stop or limit? So we’ll definitely have our hands full Sunday,” per Mink.
Nacua’s touchdown catch against the Browns was a great example of how putting him on the same side of the field as Kupp creates big plays.
The Ravens face a tough choice deciding who to double and what type of coverage to play. Fortunately, defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald is designing a complex array of disguised coverage and multiple pressures.
His schemes have the Ravens topping the chart defensively, but Nacua and Kupp present arguably the unit’s toughest challenge to date. Yet another big game from Nacua would surely leave Harbaugh and the Ravens wondering what if?