The Jets recently poached Kai Nacua from the 49ers’ practice squad and he saw action last week against the Jaguars. Today we break down Nacua in detail.
The 26-year old Nacua is listed at 6’0” and 205 pounds and was undrafted out of BYU in 2017. Nacua has 17 tackles in 23 career games, including three starts. Most of that production came in his rookie year, though.
Nacua was a two-star prospect out of high school and had offers from a few places before opting to attend BYU. He recorded nine tackles, two tackles for loss and two passes defensed in a rotational role as a freshman.
As a sophomore, Nacua had 42 tackles and the first two interceptions of his career, then moved into more of a full time role over his last two seasons. He had a career high 66 tackles in his junior year and was named to the all-Independent first team after racking up six interceptions, including two pick-sixes.
Nacua again had six interceptions in his senior year and, although he only had 48 tackles, he was named as a semi-finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award.
At the end of his college career, Nacua wasn’t invited to the combine or any of the higher profile all-star games, but he impressed at his pro day and was signed as an undrafted free agent after going unselected in the 2017 draft.
Nacua made the Browns roster as a reserve safety and played in every game as a rookie. He was primarily a special teamer but saw action down the stretch, including three starts. The Browns ended up with an 0-16 record, though.
Despite this promising start to his career, Nacua didn’t make it onto an active roster again until 2020. He spent time with Baltimore, Carolina and Indianapolis in preseason or on practice squads during the 2018 and 2019 season.
In 2020, he signed to the 49ers’ practice squad in November and was eventually added to the active roster. He played in five games, recording one tackle, but only played three defensive snaps.
Nacua was on the 49ers’ practice squad again in 2021, from where he made one regular season appearance. However, the Jets poached him a few weeks ago and he was in action against Jacksonville as he played 11 defensive snaps and was on the field for the crucial goal line stand that iced the win.
By rule, the Jets must retain Nacua on their active roster until the end of the season, although he can be inactive on gameday. They signed him through 2022 so he should be back with the team next season.
Now let’s take a look at what Nacua brings to the table, divided into categories.
The book on Nacua as a draft prospect was that he lacked athleticism and the speed to run with wide receivers at the NFL level.
While it didn’t help him to get drafted, Nacua posted an excellent pro day workout with good numbers across the board for speed, explosiveness and agility. These included a sub-4.5 40-yard dash, 39-inch vertical and 6.87 three-cone drill.
He doesn’t have particularly good size or length, although he had previously been listed at 215 in college. He posted a solid 15 bench press reps.
Nacua has primarily played as a deep safety at the NFL level, including in preseason action. He’s matched up in coverage or come up into the box at times, but not very often.
During his freshman year at BYU he was used as a linebacker so he does have some experience in the box. In high school, Nacua was actually a dual-threat quarterback.
Since he’s been playing at the NFL level, Nacua has primarily been employed ranging deep on in zone coverages and hasn’t played a lot of man-to-man or been targeted directly much.
Here’s a play where he latches onto his coverage assignment down the field but allows him too much room and can’t recover across the field.
What stands out about Nacua’s coverage abilities is his high interception totals. He shows a good ability to break on the ball with excellent closing speed and goes after the ball aggressively.
While he doesn’t have any passes defensed in regular season action, Nacua did have a pass breakup and this pick-six in preseason.
On the breakup, he makes an athletic deflection which almost leads to another turnover. This was ultimately ruled out of bounds.
When he does intercept a pass, Nacua flashes some natural return abilities and is a threat to take it to the house.
Nacua has had some pretty good production as a tackler during his college career. He missed 13 tackles in his junior year, but otherwise posted high tackle efficiency numbers.
Here’s an impressive play where he closes sharply and goes low to take down a bigger opponent.
On this play, he comes up too fast and fails to make the play in the backfield. However, by adjusting his angle to the outside shoulder, he prevents the runner from being able to bounce it outside for a potentially much bigger gain.
In college, Nacua forged a bit of a reputation as a big hitter. However, he was ejected from one game for targeting. Here’s a cleaner hit to break up a pass.
Nacua is best employed in space and when beating a blocker, it would usually be because he got there first rather than fought him off.
Nacua hasn’t contributed too much in run defense at the NFL level but he make a good play here as he reads the play quickly and gets ahead of the block.
Nacua didn’t have any sacks in college and only registered two hurries officially. However, he has one quarterback hit in regular season action at the NFL level.
He also had this sack in preseason, showing good burst off the edge and running the quarterback down well.
Nacua has plenty of experience on special teams and has generally been productive in kick and punt coverage with several tackles in preseason and regular season action at the NFL level.
In college, Nacua picked up a blocked field goal and returned it into Boise State territory to set up a key touchdown.
Nacua’s experience as a high school quarterback and in multiple roles at the college level should help him to understand schemes and roles well. It speaks to his adaptability that he saw defensive action with the Jets having been with them for only about a week.
On film, there are plenty of examples of him making a quick read and attacking with no hesitation. However, this could potentially be exploited with tendency breakers and he did have a few blown coverages with the Browns.
In college, Nacua was regarded as an emotional and vocal leader with good maturity. He had a good work ethic and was determined to honor his late father.
Earlier on in his career, he was described as quick-tempered, with one high profile incident seeing him throwing a punch during an on-field brawl against Memphis.
Nacua’s on-field discipline has been pretty solid, generally. He only had four defensive penalties in his college career. However, he had an unnecessary roughness penalty with the Browns when he butted an opponent while talking trash.
Nacua didn’t have any injuries at the collegiate level, but was placed on injured reserve after training camp in 2019 with an undisclosed injury and also went on the practice squad injury list with a hamstring issue earlier this season after getting hurt in his only appearance with the 49ers.
The 2019 injury apparently wasn’t serious because he was released with an injury settlement shortly afterwards, although he was unable to sign with a team until the following November.
Nacua was signed by the Jets for the exact reason that he fits - and knows - the system. They needed some emergency replacements in the secondary for that Jaguars game so called upon Nacua and Will Parks who they got up to speed in some late night meetings.
He’s had several current Jets as teammates since leaving the Browns; Tevin Coleman, Ronnie Blair, Greg Van Roten, CJ Mosley, Joe Flacco, Isaiah Williams, Ken Webster and Josh Perkins.
Nacua was called into action with the Jets last week because their top three safeties were all unavailable but two of them returned the following week so it’s possible he won’t get another chance this season. However, he did sign through next season so he might get a chance to compete for a role in 2022.
As a draft prospect, it’s surprising he wasn’t drafted because he had statistical production to go along with the excellent workout numbers that scouts weren’t really expecting.
In this phase of his career, Nacua is just looking for another opportunity and the fact he was called upon in an emergency situation last week and fared well could improve his chances of being an option again for any team that finds themselves in a similar position.