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Under-recruited, undrafted, and unbowed: How Allen Lazard became a key part of the Packers’ offense

Major college programs found Allen Lazard a year too late. NFL teams ignored him in the draft. The Packers didn’t even keep him on their first 53-man roster. Now, he’s shining with the belief of his quarterback and a clear skillset. Lazard isn’t surprised.

Allen Lazard burst onto the scene Sunday against the Giants with his first 100-yard game.
| Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

The first time Tom Manning met Allen Lazard, the hulking 6-foot-5 227-pound receiver wore a Lion King t-shirt. The new Iowa State offensive coordinator chuckled to himself, “Hakuna Matata.” With the size, speed, and physical prowess of Lazard, it’s hard to imagine he’d have many worries on a football field, but his road to contributing player on an Aaron Rodgers-led Green Bay Packers offense looking to compete for another Super Bowl win came with hairpin turns and icy roads that belie his talent.

Lazard committed to Iowa State after starring just up the road in Urbandale. Blue blood programs found him late in the recruiting process, after he’d committed to being a Cyclone, the team he grew up watching. Temptation from Notre Dame, Oregon, and LSU couldn’t knock him off his stated path.

“The way I was raised, once you make a commitment, you stuck with it,” Lazard says.

That faith would be tested by a struggling ISU football program. Losing sucked the joy out of the game for Lazard, despite the fact he thrived in an offense featuring him. In his senior year of 2017, the Cyclones finally put things together, and Lazard’s virtuoso talent put Ames on the college football map.

“We knew this guy is a really key part of this program and the offense and then after getting to know him and being around him, we found out not only was he the kind of player were excited to coach,” Manning says, calling Lazard a catalyst for changing the culture. That culture perseveres with head coach Matt Campbell, even with their ex-star receiver in the NFL.

Despite the losing, Lazard endured, believing in himself and his ability and knowing he was good enough to not only help his team win games but to go to the NFL. Could pro scouts have noticed him more in the Pac-12 or SEC? Probably, but his confidence and belief never wavered, a belief he carries with him to the point that his future Hall of Fame quarterback noticed.

“I’ve always said about Allen, he has a calm demeanor,” Rodgers said Sunday after Lazard’s first career 100-yard game.

“He expects to make those plays and you love that as a quarterback because he gives you confidence that it’s almost like ‘Hey, ya know, the ball should be coming my way.’

Rodgers paused for a moment, mimicking the theoretical interaction.

“You’re a second-year guy.”

“Throw me the ball,” he replies, speaking again for his self-assured receiver.

If there was a concise way to describe the Iowa State offense with Lazard, that is it: throw No. 5 the ball. Manning half-jokes they threw it to him just about every play. In four years, Lazard racked up 241 catches for 3,360 yards and 26 touchdowns, but the NFL viewed him as a middling prospect. He was huge, they knew that, but what position did he play? Was he instead a move tight end? Could he play in the slot at receiver?

Questions dogged his pre-draft process and Lazard wanted to remove doubts, so he went to the Senior Bowl despite a bum ankle, injured in his final game at Iowa State.

“To me, I’m a competitor and I know that what scouts had on me was a mid-round grade, to late round, and I didn’t see myself as that. And I wanted to go out there and prove it,” he says. Lazard admits he didn’t play his best, but refused to use the ankle injury as an excuse.

Still, he ran 4.55 and jumped 38 inches at the NFL Combine. That alone for a player his size usually serves as enough to get drafted, never mind the production, the hands, and the ability to high point the ball. But on draft weekend, no teams turned a card in with his name on it. CBS Sports draft analyst Chris Trapasso insists Lazard had no business going undrafted with solid film and a good combine. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler considered Lazard a Day 3 quality player and Football Outsiders’ statistical model projected him to be a mid-round pick.

“I saw people get picked up that I’d never heard of, or that I had heard of and did not see anything in terms of results and style of play,” Lazard says. “So it was definitely a very humbling moment.”

With no one to turn to, no other NFL players from his college team to ask for advice, Lazard flew blind through the post-draft process, landing in Jacksonville. There he said his plan was to mimic the players he saw, to mirror their way of handling the pro game. This was at the same time Lazard had to figure out life on his own. Paying his phone bills, buying a bed, living in a new city. Those adjustments alone make for a difficult transition, even without having to get open every day in practice opposite Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye.

“I’ve definitely moved on from that whole process, but it’s definitely still in the back of my mind. It’s definitely something that still lights my fire every single day, knowing I’m working from the bottom up, getting whatever I can in this league.”

Lazard looks at that time with the Jaguars as seminal in his development. He learned how to treat the game as work, to study and develop his craft. The nuances of the game, pre-snap and post-snap reads, and working on releases separate the players who make it from those who don’t. Lazard credits Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, then with the Jags, for being a “phenomenal teacher,” aiding his development.

“Early on, he didn’t have a greatest understanding of what it takes to be an elite player, like most young players, especially in a situation where he’s the biggest fish in the smallest pond,” Manning says, noting the decision Lazard made in college to dedicate himself to being more than just bigger and stronger than his opponents.

“I think if he continues on that path, you’ll keep writing articles about him.”

Lazard landed in Green Bay just a few months before Hackett, signed off the practice squad during the most tumultuous season in recent Packers history. He caught his only target for 7 yards, intrigued a fan base with his size and skills, and over the course of the next six month, caught the attention of his quarterback to the point Rodgers essentially demanded Lazard play late against the Lions in October.

That trust paid off with four catches, 65 yards and a pivotal touchdown. Since then, Lazard stepped into an elevated role with the Packers, catching 22 balls for 330 yards and two touchdowns with a robust 76% catch rate. In just one start this season, Lazard put up one fewer catch than Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who has started eight contests. He’s made plays down the field despite questions about his speed. Lazard’s leaping grab against the Raiders and physical play against the Lions demonstrates a player who can play outside. He was even player of the week on special teams against the Giants, as well as co-offensive player of the week.

Since breaking into the lineup, Lazard looks like the Packers’ second-best receiver and the numbers back it up, but as Rodgers will tell you, he expected this. It’s where Lazard always saw himself, even as a kid knowing he had the talent to be a pro athlete.

“It’s been a long journey that’s for sure. For me, it’s just the beginning of things, so I’m not getting too caught up in this moment,” Lazard said after the game.

A 103-yard performance with a deep shot touchdown becomes banal when you’re the man affectionately known as Alien Lizard. Now, he has a better understanding of what it takes to accomplish his goals, his attention to detail (he sits next to Rodgers in meetings) matching his physical prowess. He expected to be here even if the NFL didn’t.

He doesn’t change direction well. He fails to uncover or get open consistently. Maybe he’s a tight end. He played at Iowa State. None of it bothers the 24-year-old Packer. He knows how physically talented he is, and now has the knowledge of what it takes to maximize that ability.

The criticisms? Hakuna Matata.

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