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Allen Lazard, the Packers’ First Down Machine

What can statistics tell us about high-efficiency receivers moving into a larger role?

Chicago Bears v Green Bay Packers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Before addressing Allen Lazard and the Green Bay Packers, let’s look back at a former Packers coach as a history lesson for context.

Mike Holmgren left the Packers to take over the Seattle Seahawks for the 1999 season, immediately taking the team to a 9-7 record and a first place finish in the AFC West. However, Holmgren had trouble improving on that mark for quite some time. The Seahawks would hover around .500 until 2003, when they finally cracked double digit wins (10-6) on the strength of a good season from Matt Hasselbeck and an amazing year from running back Shaun Alexander.

The Seattle passing game also took a step forward starting in 2001, anchored by Hasselbeck and buoyed by receivers Darrell Jackson, a 3rd round pick in the 2000 draft out of Florida who tallied 499 catches and 7000 yards in his career, and Koren Robinson, the 9th overall pick of the 2001 draft out of NC State. Robinson served as a deep threat, and averaged 14.4 yards per reception over his 8-year career.

Starting in Robinson’s rookie year of 2001, the duo dominated the target share in Seattle. They combined for 210 of 452 targets in their first year together in 2001. They combined for 253 of 578 targets in 2002. Things really started to click in 2003 when the two combined for 249 targets and Jackson had the best year of his career, catching 68 balls for 1137 yards (16.7 yards per catch) and 9 scores. The Seahawks would be knocked out of the playoffs in the Wild Card round via a famous Al Harris interception.

In 2004 the team would return to the playoffs as Robinson and Jackson would combine for 223 of 525 targets with an assist from Jerry Rice (49 targets) in his final season. Unfortunately, they ran into the last gasp of the Greatest Show on Turf as the Rams squeaked into the playoffs as an 8-8 Wild Card, just behind the Seahawks in the NFC West, and knocked them out.

Then, a funny thing happened.

After the 2004 season, Koren Robinson left the team, signing with the Minnesota Vikings, leaving Jackson to lead the way. In the first 4 games, Jackson was outstanding, but in a loss to Washington in Week 4, he would suffer a severe injury that would keep him out until Week 15. Taking over for the majority of the season would be 31-year old veteran journeyman Joe Jurevicius and the man who had served as the teams’ third/slot receiver for so many seasons, Bobby Engram.

Engram was growing into a bit of an analytics folk hero, and Aaron Schatz would eventually dub Engram as the “First Down Machine.” Starting around 2003, he would frequently show up on lists of the most underrated receivers in football. Engram joined the Seahawks in 2001 as a 28-year-old castoff from the Bears who missed most of 2000 with injuries. Prior to the 2005 season, he had always served as the third option, usually in the slot. However, despite his limited role in 2003, he was so efficient in catching almost 70% of his targets and contributing 6 touchdowns that he actually finished first overall in DVOA.

He was an excellent complement to Jackson and Robinson, who specialized in big plays down the field but didn’t catch a high percentage of their targets. As a Seahawk, Jackson caught just 55.8% of his targets while Robinson was even worse at 52.6%. Both excelled in creating the big play, but if you needed a sure-handed player to get to the sticks, Engram was your man, with a 66.7% catch rate and an almost supernatural ability to work his way just past the first down markers. From 2001 to 2008, only two players (Wes Welker and Troy Brown) with at least 200 receptions had a higher catch% than Engram, and it’s no coincidence that both played with Tom Brady.

Prior to 2005, Engram never had more than 75 targets in any season with the Seahawks, but that year, despite missing 3 games, his total jumped to 97. While he only gained 11.6 yards per completion, he maintained his amazing catch% (69.1) and continued to convert first downs at his normal rate. Engram would lead the team in targets, just edging out Jurevicius and his 85. Jackson would eventually return and play extremely well, catching a career high 69.1% of his passes over a smaller sample of games. With all of this newfound efficiency, the Seahawks would lead the league in scoring, averaging 28.3 points per game, and make it to the Super Bowl, where they would lose to the Steelers. The highest any Jackson/Robinson team finished in points scored was 7th in 2003, but they were generally closer to middle of the pack. The 2005 team was a sea change, moving from the low-percentage/big-play passing game of the previous four seasons to a less explosive but far more efficient and consistent passing game. Engram’s emergence was the driving force, and the Seahawks made a Super Bowl as a result.

As Engram’s role increased over time, he did give away some efficiency, but he always maintained enough to be a real threat. In 2005, as the primary receiver, he finished 22nd in DYAR and after missing much of 2006 with an injury, he would improve on that in 2007 Finishing 7th in DYAR, just behind Greg Jennings while registering a near career high 134 targets and 94 catches. By 2007 Darrell Jackson had moved on as well, but Engram was no worse for the bigger role. Seattle would finish 2007 with the 6th most passing first downs, just ahead of Green Bay, who would eventually knock them out of the playoffs in the Snow Globe game.

When Jackson and Robinson left (or missed time with injuries), few would have expected the Seattle offense to keep on humming as it did, let alone improve, but because Engram was able to maintain his efficiency even with an increased role, that’s exactly what happened.

Allen Lazard

The Packers have their own first down machine in the form of Allen Lazard, who, in 2021, converted 46.7% of his targets into first downs. This ranked 9th among all receivers with at least 50 targets:

Lazard has always been an efficiency star, having finished 2021 5th in DVOA. While DVOA is more volatile on a year to year basis than it’s counting stat cousin DYAR, there are some players who just happen to excel in it. Lazard is almost certainly such a player.

In 2019, when Lazard first broke through for the team with his almost single-handed comeback against the Lions, he would finish the season a respectable 17th in DVOA. Lazard suffered an injury in the 2020 season and barely missed qualifying for the DVOA leaderboard (minimum 50 targets) with 46 targets, but had he done so, his 27.5% would have been good for 6th overall. While Lazard’s career has been relatively short so far (he has started just 25 games over 3 seasons) and his role often limited, his aggregate career numbers (109 catches on 159 targets, 13.3 Y/C, 66.7% catch percentage) roughly match New Orleans’ star receiver Michael Thomas’ 2017 season, or tight end Travis Kelce’s 2018 season.

That’s pretty good, even broken up over 3 seasons, but it’s not THAT helpful in projecting Lazard forward. After all, just because Bobby Engram managed to thrive with an increased role or because three of Lazard’s short seasons add up to one good season, that doesn’t mean we can just project this for everyone. After all, being a primary receiver that is the focus of coverage is different than being the 2nd or 3rd receiver, and in Green Bay, the situation has drastically changed with Davante Adams leaving for the Raiders. Darrell Jackson and Koren Robinson are not Davante Adams, and Adams is coming off what was a hyper-efficient season in its own right, as he ranked 2nd in DYAR and 12th in DVOA with an insane amount of volume.

It’s entirely possible that Lazard’s efficiency owes a lot to Adams drawing coverage and, from an efficiency perspective, it’s obviously much easier to get open and get to the sticks against the lower corners of the world. Gone also is Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and while he certainly had a down year in 2021, MVS is always adept at getting the attention of the safeties if nothing else. Lazard will almost certainly sacrifice some level of efficiency with an increased role, but the question is how much and how can we tell? What factors can we use to project Lazard forward? The answer, as it turns out, depends on how the Packers decide to use him in 2022. And if they use him as they have in the past, he may not surrender much efficiency at all.

“The Lazard Range”

I think of LaFleur as, primarily, a disciple of Kyle Shanahan. The Packers and 49ers both appreciate big-bodied pass catchers and backs, they make frequent use of power running, and they use plenty of 12 personnel. But it’s useful to remember that there is some Sean McVay in there too, and nowhere is it more prevalent than in how the Packers use the slot. While Randall Cobb spent plenty of time playing traditional slot last season, more often than not, Lazard occupied the slot, seeing 84% of his targets from the position, one of the highest ratios in the league.

And as it turns out, if you want to maintain efficiency with an uptick in usage, the slot is where you want to be.

The Packers and Rams both prefer to have excellent blockers in the slot to support their run games. Lazard is one of the best blocking receivers in the game and excels at using his huge frame to erase would-be tacklers. He’s not quite a tight end and doesn’t perform much in-line blocking, but at the second level, there is almost no one better. If there is anyone better, it’s Cooper Kupp, the Rams’ incredible slot receiver who just had one of the best receiving seasons in NFL history. Kupp was just north of Lazard in percentage of time spent in the slot at 87%, and Kupp was a model of efficiency and volume. It was the 2nd time in his career that Kupp landed in the elite echelon of DVOA.

Kupp shares another key similarity with Lazard in that he was also a small sample size efficiency all-star upon entering the league in 2017, and joining Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins in the receiver corps. The Rams divided targets fairly equally among the receivers, and Kupp, Gurley, and Woods all had between 56 and 64 receptions with Watkins serving as a low-volume deep threat. Kupp was 4th in DVOA overall as a rookie, but he would suffer injuries his second year in the league and only play in 8 games. Despite the injury and the limited time, plus the addition of Brandin Cooks to the team, Kupp still finished 23rd in DVOA. The weird season for Kupp was in 2020, where he played as a more traditional slot only averaging 10.6 yards per reception, but the addition of the strong-armed Matthew Stafford in 2021 and the departure of Josh Reynolds opened up Kupp to completely take over with 191 targets and an insane 76% catch rate at 13.4 yards per catch. Kupp became an absolute cheat code from the slot.

Lazard isn’t Cooper Kupp, but he probably can be something like 75-80% of Cooper Kupp, because the slot is in fact a cheat code, especially if you can also block. And the slot seems to be an area where receivers can and do maintain their efficiency when adding volume. I ran a report in Stathead looking for receivers who had multiple “Lazard seasons” in their careers (defined as at least 2 seasons under 65 catches, over 65% catch%, and between 12 and 14 yards per catch.) This is not the most scientific report I’ve ever run as I absolutely cherry picked end points a bit, and I’m not sure that looking for “multiple small sample size seasons” is, practically speaking, a good idea. But just look at everyone who inhabits the range between Allen Lazards!

There’s Randle-El and Kupp just outside the range. There’s our friend Bobby Engram as well as Kendrick Bourne, who is something of a “Deebo Samuel-slot” player with New England and who finished #1 in DVOA last season. There’s Eddie Royal, Danny Amendola, and late-career Antonio Brown. And almost every elite tight end, who run routes conceptually similar to slot receivers. I think we have something here.

Every single advanced statistic on Lazard tells us that he is a better receiver than is commonly understood.

While it’s unlikely that Adams’ lost targets will go exclusively to one person, there are 169 of them to distribute, and a 100+ target season for Lazard doesn’t just seem possible, but likely. That would put Lazard, if he maintains his averages, somewhere around 900 yards, and given his red zone chops and size, he’ll put quite a few touchdowns on the board as well. From the most recent Football Outsiders Almanac:

Lazard won’t turn 27 until the Week 14 bye. He’s entering his prime after showing off elite efficient play in limited roles behind Adams. His outstanding blocking all but guarantees him a major role in the offense, his high slot usage should make it easier for him to maintain that efficiency with more volume, and his red zone chops make his 8 touchdowns from 2021 seem like less of an anomaly and more like a portent of things to come. And of course, on the most important play of the 2021 season, Lazard executed perfectly, even if he didn’t get the football.

Maybe the Packers will move him outside more frequently, which would likely sap some efficiency, but I doubt it. I think they know exactly what they’re doing with their love of big receivers who can block. LaFleur is very familiar with exactly how the Rams have used Kupp, and there are already hints of that baked into how Lazard was used last year. If you’re projecting where most of the target volume will go in 2022, big slot Lazard is as safe a bet as you’ll find.