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Lazard’s Leap

In the span of 11 months, life has changed drastically. The player who was cut at the end of camp last summer enters this training camp as the overwhelming favorite to be the No. 2 receiver.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Last summer, Allen Lazard was released at the end of training camp. The receiver-poor Green Bay Packers deemed Darrius Shepherd a better fit for their roster.

Lazard was back on the Packers’ roster in time for the opener but, in the first five games, he played 21 snaps and was targeted exactly zero times in the passing game.

In the Week 6 contest against Detroit, he played zero snaps until Aaron Rodgers changed the course of the game, season and Lazard’s career by suggesting Lazard get a chance with the Packers staring at an embarrassing loss in the fourth quarter. In the final 12 minutes, Lazard caught four passes for 65 yards, including a 35-yard touchdown. That made Lazard the unlikely hero of an unlikely victory, and set the stage for an unlikely rise to prominence.

“It’s all about opportunity and timing,” Lazard said on Sunday. “You can’t really control those two things. For me as a person, I’ve never really tried to sweat too much about the things that I couldn’t control. I prepared every single week, going up into Week 6, like a starter. I made sure I had my plays down. I didn’t want to go out there and be put in a position where I was playing and the team was counting on me and I let them down. You look at that Lions game and everybody sees the big catch and everything but they also forget about the play before that, I had a dropped pass. It’s all about keeping that positive mind-set, always believing in yourself and never shying away from the moment.”

In the span of 11 months, life has changed drastically. The player who was cut at the end of camp last summer enters this training camp as the overwhelming favorite to be the No. 2 receiver opposite Davante Adams. Instead of fighting for a roster spot, Lazard’s focus will be inward – on getting better, refining his game and strengthening his bond with Rodgers.

Starting with that Detroit game, Lazard caught 35-of-52 passes (67.3 percent) for 477 yards (13.6 average) and three touchdowns over the final 11 games. Projected to 16 games, that works out to 51 receptions, 694 yards and four touchdowns. Of 79 receivers to be targeted 50 times, Lazard ranked 42nd with 1.62 yards per pass route, according to Pro Football Focus.

For Rodgers, it’s always about trust. That trust showed on third down. Lazard finished second on the team in third-down receptions (13). He had more third-down catches that resulted in first downs (12) then fellow receivers Geronimo Allison (six) and Marquez Valdes-Scantling (five) combined. One of those big third-down plays came in the season finale at Detroit. On third-and-10 from the Lions’ 28, he made a leaping touchdown catch against star corner Darius Slay as Green Bay again rallied past Detroit.

“I think that (chemistry), that connection that we had throughout the season, especially towards the latter half of the season going on to the playoffs came from, one, just hard work every single day in practice, and I think he saw that,” Lazard said. “And then he knew that I cared. I think that was the biggest thing it is with Aaron, he needs to know that you care and he can trust you. I think I did all the right things to show him that. I think that’s the biggest reason why we had success together.”

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Two burning questions hover over his head entering this season.

First, it’s whether Lazard was simply a flash in the pan. In 2018, Lazard went undrafted, signed with Jacksonville and was released at the end of training camp. He spent most of the season on the Jaguars’ practice squad until Green Bay – which had considered Lazard a potential tight end conversion before the draft – signed him to the active roster for the final two weeks of the season.

His story isn’t totally dissimilar to that of Jarrett Boykin. In 2012, Boykin went undrafted and signed with Jacksonville, where he lasted just a few days. He landed in Green Bay and won a roster spot. A year later, he took advantage of injuries to James Jones and Randall Cobb and Greg Jennings’ free-agent departure to finish third on the team with 49 receptions. Instead of a budding standout, Boykin was never heard from again. He caught only five passes in 2014 and failed to make rosters in Carolina in 2015 and Buffalo in 2016. That swift rise and fall seems unlikely for Lazard, but it did for Boykin at the time, as well.

“He’s got a great mind-set,” coach Matt LaFleur said. “We showed a lot of clips to the team just of the effort that he gives, not only on the offensive side of the ball but on special teams, as well. I just think his mentality is so contagious, I think it rubs off on other guys. He brings great work ethic on a daily basis, and I think it translated to his play. He made some really critical plays for us. Both Detroit games, he had big touchdowns and [he has a] willingness to do whatever it takes.”

Second, it’s whether Lazard is a legit No. 2 on a championship-contending team or a by-default No. 2 for a team that lacks the horsepower to legitimately contend in the powerful NFC. The Packers didn’t draft a receiver and their only major addition, Devin Funchess, opted out. Unless Valdes-Scantling or Equanimeous St. Brown dominate August, it’s hard to believe Lazard won’t be the No. 2 receiver in September.

“Allen Lazard is one of the guys that’s shown that he’s a really talented player on the field, and he’s coming into his own confidence-wise,” Adams said. “I think once you start to have that true confidence, it’s not just something you’re saying. If somebody asks you who’s the best receiver in the league and you just say it’s yourself, that’s what you’re supposed to say because that’s the right thing to say receiver-mentality wise. But once you start to truly believe you’re a really, really good player and you know your role on the team and all that, ”

While Lazard’s circumstances and place on the depth chart have changed, he says his mentality will remain the same.

It’s worked thus far, after all.

“I’m going to approach it the same way,” he said. “Just kind of looking through my journey through this NFL and everything, I was able to make my biggest strides when I was kind of backed up against the wall and didn’t really know where my position was or if I was going to have a job. So, I just want to keep that same mentality, same mind-set, going into Year 3 just to make sure I don’t get too caught up with everything just from the success I had last year.”