Justin Jefferson Has Unexpected Challenger to His Crown

Sep 10, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) warms up before the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports.

Justin Jefferson took home the receiving yards crown in 2022, his first time accomplishing the feat in the NFL. The young wideout is on track to do so again in 2023 but has an unexpected challenger.

He’s Puka Nacua of the Los Angeles Rams, a wide receiver who’s seized an opportunity to thrive in the absence of Cooper Kupp.

Justin Jefferson Has Unexpected Challenger to His Crown

Jefferson and Nacua are mind-bogglingly on pace for 2,000+ yards this season, with the rookie Ram just 42 yards behind Jefferson’s current total of 543.

Has Unexpected Challenger
Sep 25, 2023; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua (17) catches a pass against the Cincinnati Bengals in the second half at Paycor Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports.

If Jefferson + Nacua continue through 17 games, with no injuries, Jefferson will set an NFL record with 2,308 receiving yards, and Nacua close behind at 2,129. No player in NFL history has ever broached the 2,000-yard barrier.

So, who’s Puka Nacua?

Aug 19, 2023; Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua (17) warms up before the game against the Las Vegas Raiders at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports.

Foremost, he’s a God among fantasy football managers. Men and women who grabbed Nacua from the early-season waiver wire might’ve won their leagues with the tap of a thumb. Nacua wasn’t drafted in most fantasy leagues, at least not deep ones, instead unearthed after the regular season began.

Nacua, 22, earned a 3rd-4th Round grade from most draft pundits several months ago, ultimately falling to the Rams in Round 5. Then, the aforementioned Kupp landed on injured reserve, and Nacua, plus Tutu Atwell and Van Jefferson, were on deck for fill-in duty.

Jun 14, 2023; Thousand Oaks, CA, USA; Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay talks with receiver Puka Nacua (17) during minicamp at Cal Lutheran University. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports.

Thereafter and in a hurry, Nacua busted out, earning national stardom by the start of October. He caught his first NFL touchdown last weekend in grand fashion, walking off the Indianapolis Colts on the road in overtime.

The Draft Network was high on Nacua during the lead-up to the 2023 NFL Draft, explaining about the BYU alumnus, “Expectations for Nacua should be that of an immediate role player on an NFL roster. Wide-receiver-hungry teams should be able to find reps for him quickly on offense, but all 32 teams would welcome his physicality and abilities. This player has the feel of a future NFL starter, although the timeline will be predicated on the offense he lands in and how strong the fit is for his immediate strengths and what he’s being asked to do.”

But at the NFL Combine, Nacua put a 4.57 forty-yard dash on record, a death sentence for any wide receiver hoping to hear his name called in Round 1 or 2.

Oct 1, 2023; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua (17) runs with the ball after a catch while Indianapolis Colts cornerback Dallis Flowers (33) defends in the second quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports.

For Jefferson’s purposes, looking to retain the league’s receiving yard crown, Kupp’s eventual return — the Rams are mysterious about the timeline — could dampen Nacua’s his rookie charge. There are only so many targets in an offense, and when Kupp returns, well, he’s a target hog, like Jefferson.

No matter what, though, Los Angeles has a budding star on its hands. And Nacua’s breakneck ascent to the national stage should be a reminder that gems can be plucked from the draft’s late rounds.

Dustin Baker is a political scientist who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2007. Subscribe to his daily YouTube Channel, VikesNow. He hosts a podcast with Bryant McKinnie, which airs every Wednesday with Raun Sawh and Sal Spice. His Vikings obsession dates back to 1996. Listed guilty pleasures: Peanut Butter Ice Cream, ‘The Sopranos,’ Basset Hounds, and The Doors (the band).

All statistics provided by Pro Football Reference / Stathead; all contractual information provided by OverTheCap.com.