GREEN BAY – A year ago at this time, hardly anyone was trumpeting Allen Lazard as a name to watch in the Packers' receiver competition during training camp.
A resident of the auxiliary portion of the team's locker room, the alcove reserved for the longest of summer longshots, the former undrafted free agent knew he had four weeks of practice to leave an impression on Green Bay's coaching staff and quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
And boy did he ever.
There was perhaps no better Cinderella story in 2019 than Lazard, the former Iowa State standout who went from an early afterthought to finishing the year as the Packers' No. 2 receiver.
In between, the 6-foot-5, 227-pound receiver was let go during final cuts – only to sign to Green Bay's practice squad the next day and ultimately be promoted to the active roster in time for the Packers' regular-season opener against Chicago.
By mid-October, Lazard had worked his way into the offensive picture. He finished the season second on the team with 477 receiving yards and three touchdown receptions on 35 catches, production that puts Lazard near the top of the Packers' receiver depth chart entering his second summer in Green Bay.
"Personally, I'm going to approach it the same way," Lazard said. "Just looking through my journey through this NFL and everything, that's where I was able to make my biggest strides, when I was 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 mindset."
It may have taken time for onlookers to catch onto Lazard's upside but Rodgers, to his credit, took an early liking to the unheralded receiver. Lazard can recall Rodgers pulling him aside to provide encouragement and advice during the opening weeks of the 2019 offseason program.
Lazard appreciated the two-time MVP quarterback extending his hand, especially since the young receiver was relatively new to the team. Lazard, who spent most of his rookie year in 2018 on Jacksonville's practice squad, didn't join the Packers' roster until the final two weeks of that regular season.
The friendship Rodgers and Lazard formed was a catalyst for the offense in 2019. Lazard's timely catches helped propel the Packers in both of their wins over the Detroit Lions, the second of which helped Green Bay clinch the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs and corresponding first-round bye.
Making big catches is one thing, but it was the extra effort Lazard showed on special teams and run-blocking plays that won over Head Coach Matt LaFleur, who routinely used film of the 24-year-old receiver as a teaching tool during team meetings.
"He attacks it the right way," LaFleur said. "Just his willingness to do whatever it takes, whether it's in the pass game going to catch a route or being a decoy, or in the run, he dominated his opponents. And I think the opposition sees that and they know that they better put in their mouth guard and buckle up their chin strap every time he's out on the field."
Asked whether he'd rather make a big catch or a big block that leads to a big gain on the ground, Lazard instantly chooses the latter. He credits his father, former Iowa State defensive back Kevin Lazard, for instilling that grittiness in his game.
Looking to take things to the next level in 2020, Lazard spent the offseason in Arizona with close friend Manny Wilkins, who was a member of the Packers' practice squad in 2019.
That arrangement not only gave Lazard a capable quarterback to throw him passes but also someone to push him each day in workouts. A popular target for Rodgers on third downs last year, Lazard trained with the focus of preparing his mind and body for a full NFL season.
"Really, I was only playing the second half of the season so the first half, I wasn't playing as much," Lazard said. "Now, I've got to look at it as I'm really going into this season to play a full 16 games offensively and special teams, as well. From that standpoint, I started taking care of my body a little bit more, making sure I was stretching, doing the right rehab and to make sure I was able to stay up on my mobility."
Simply put, Lazard wants to be an "any-down security blanket" for Rodgers this season. While his place on the roster may be secure, that doesn't mean there's nothing more for Lazard to prove. Arguably the hottest topic of the Packers' offseason was how the team didn't select a receiver in April's NFL Draft.
The howling resurfaced two weeks ago after free-agent acquisition Devin Funchess opted out of the 2020 season due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, meaning improvement will have to come from within for the Packers' young receivers.
Lazard takes all the outside chatter in stride. To him, every season is a prove-it year. In 2020, he's eager to show his Cinderella story has more than one chapter.
"I mean honestly we just kind of laugh at it because it shows the little acknowledgement of what value we actually bring to the room and to the team," Lazard said. "We're very confident in ourselves. A lot of us are returning and we've been in this system for two years if not been here in the organization for more, playing with these players. So I think it's more so just building this (chemistry) and understanding and trusting each other out there on Sundays."