GREEN BAY, Wis. – Allen Lazard, in the words of Aaron Rodgers, arrived in Green Bay with a “surprising” amount of confidence.
“I say ‘surprising’ because he hadn’t done anything,” Rodgers told SiriusXM NFL Radio on Sunday.
For the sake of accuracy, Lazard had done plenty. But it was in college, and the NFL didn’t seem to care. At Iowa State, he set school records for career receptions and yards. Nonetheless, despite production and great size, Lazard went undrafted in 2018 and failed to make Jacksonville’s roster. Green Bay swiped him off the Jaguars’ practice squad near the end of the season, and a strong training camp put him in position to make the roster in 2019.
“It was every day we were watching the gold reps, and you’re saying, ‘Who’s 13?’” Rodgers recalled in a conversation with Packers beat reporters last week. “I’m like, ‘Get him down on the green side, at least for a couple days. I need to see this guy against some ones and twos down here.’”
It wasn’t enough, as Lazard failed to make the roster. His stay on the practice squad lasted a few days but Lazard mostly languished on the Packers’ bench for the first five games of the season.
Finally, with Green Bay in danger of being upset at home by Detroit, Rodgers went to former receiver coach Alvis Whitted and asked if Lazard could get in the game. In 17 snaps, Lazard posted team highs of four receptions for 65 yards, including a 35-yard touchdown. Rodgers threw for 147 yards in the fourth quarter alone as Green Bay escaped with a 23-22 victory.
It was a defining moment for the team and for Lazard. In last year’s season-opening game at Chicago, Lazard didn’t play a single snap on offense. In Sunday’s season-opening game at Minnesota, Lazard figures to be the team’s No. 2 receiver and a prime part of the game plan.
What happened? How did Lazard go from unwanted to indispensable?
“Allen, being with him for a while, I think he really changed his body first and foremost,” Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, who held that same title with Jacksonville in 2018, said on Thursday. “We were trying to move him to tight end when we were at Jacksonville. Getting him here at Green Bay and having him on the roster and just seeing what he did with his body to lose weight, get faster. His intelligence has always been there, and then that chip on his shoulder of he’s not going to be denied.
Receivers coach Jason Vrable was an offensive assistant last year. Just like Rodgers but from the opposite vantage point, Vrable wanted to see Lazard get a shot with the big boys last training camp.
“About two weeks into camp, we were sitting there talking about the depth chart, and I said, ‘What about Allen?’ Vrable said Thursday. “Matt (LaFleur) was mostly down on Field 1. He was watching Field 2 but probably not as close as me, and he’s like, ‘Yeah, I have noticed him showing up.’ But Matt was on Field 1 most of the time and he doesn’t get to feel that intensity and energy. I just felt the fire in a guy, that I just knew there was some way he was going to make it into this building. I just felt it, and there was not a day that he ever came down from that standard. And that’s the same guy he is today. I think that’s where our coaching staff truly just loves the guy.”
Lazard caught 35-of-52 passes (67.3 percent) for 477 yards (13.6 average) and three touchdowns last season. All of that came over 11 games. Projected to 16 games, that works out to 51 receptions, 694 yards and four touchdowns.
Lazard’s from-out-of-nowhere contributions might have taken people by surprise but that was his expectation.
“I can’t say there’s like a pinpoint day or time or play or something like that, that I was able to break free of those chains, so to speak,” Lazard said on Thursday. “Because in all actuality, I prepared myself going into the spring last year of being someone that was going to be on the 53 and someone who was going to contribute heavily to the success of the Packers’ offense. Going into last season, I already had that mind-set of being very successful and being a key attribute to our team. It was more so waiting for my right opportunity to capitalize and for it to present itself, and for me to go out there and seize the opportunities.”
Chalk it up to that confidence referenced by Rodgers.
“He believed in himself, even if some other people didn’t,” Vrable said.
When Hackett and the rest of Green Bay’s coaching staff under LaFleur started talking personnel last year, Hackett recalled a player with toughness and work ethic. The work ethic quickly became evident to Vrable. Lazard had questions, Vrable had answers. Lazard wanted pointers, Vrable gave them to him.
“He was always in my ear,” Vrable recalled.
Lazard is more than just a big guy with a big work ethic. In Game 1 against Detroit, he had a 35-yard touchdown. In the Week 17 rematch, he beat Pro Bowl corner Darius Slay for a 28-yard touchdown. There’s a big-play element hidden that might not be obvious when seeing the 6-foot-5 Lazard in action.
“Most people think he can’t separate,” Vrable said. “When you watch the tape, every single time that he had a one-on-one, there’s very few times he was truly covered last year. This is a great quote from him. This came up in the offseason. I said, ‘Allen, do you have any goals for this offseason?’ He just goes, ‘No, I just want to go out there and win games. I just want to ball.’ Some people say that and you kind of smile because you know they also want the football or they have this agenda. It’s truly that kid. He just wants to win, he just wants to go out and play ball. Wherever the cards fall, if he has a big game and has 100 yards or a touchdown, or he doesn’t get the ball, he truly just loves football. When you have guys that love football, you’ll find a way to win games.”