At this time last year, Allen Lazard wasn't the second-leading receiver of the Green Bay Packers. He wasn't starting more than 90 percent of offensive snaps in the NFC title game.
Lazard was just hoping the Packers would have him back, a hope that was briefly dashed when Green Bay waived him on Sept. 1, following the team's final preseason game. The receiver was quickly re-signed a few days later, but Lazard's brush with unemployment forced him to alter his mindset entering his sophomore campaign and helped inspire a breakout season.
"When I first got cut, I shifted my mindset a little bit because if I'm on the team, it's about staying on the team and making plays and going out and winning. Once I got cut, it was about making the team," Lazard told NFL.com on Friday. "Those first five, six weeks before I started really playing offense I was going out there every week for special teams, just knowing that I had to make a play if I wanted to stay here or stay in the league. ... I just tried to capitalize every play that I could get in on and then just wait for the opportunity offensively."
That opportunity came in Week 6, when, forced into a midweek contest with the Lions due to injuries to Davante Adams and Geronimo Allison, Lazard caught four passes for 65 yards and a key fourth-quarter touchdown from Aaron Rodgers, leading the Packers to a come-from-behind victory. Just like that, Lazard was included in the regular receiver rotation, seizing the opportunity that had eluded his grasp for the first year-plus of his NFL career and developing an on-field relationship with the great Rodgers.
"After the Detroit game, it probably took me about a solid month or so of playing with Aaron on Sunday and understanding how he operates; his communication's just so much different than with the people that I've been with before, just even from practice to gameday, it's a whole different switch for him," Lazard explained. "So that first month and a half or so about until mid-to-late November is when I was finally able to get comfortable and understand what our solid base plays are, what Aaron likes, really being able to get back to how I felt in college when I was going out there and playing fast and not worrying about the defense and just doing my job and whatever happens happens."
By season's end, Lazard was regularly on the field for over half of Green Bay's offensive snaps. He finished his first real regular season with three starts, 35 catches, 477 yards and three touchdowns to his name. Lazard started both of Green Bay's playoff games and was on the field for all but five plays of the Packers' loss in the NFC title game.
Off the Packers' roster in September, Lazard had developed into a integral member of a Super Bowl contender by late January. And fully integrated into the new culture in Green Bay, built by Matt LaFleur and Brian Gutekunst, Lazard still feels the pain from the Pack's defeat in Santa Clara.
"I'm still kind of salty about it," Lazard said of Green Bay's lopsided loss to the 49ers. "A lot of us really had it set in stone that we were going to Miami, so kind of just being able to swallow that pill after the game and just realizing the season's over and we're not going to be able to achieve our goal was really hard. But I just think that's something that adds more fuel to the fire and just adds a chip to our shoulder going into next year.
"Playing for the Green Bay Packers, that's the standard and expectation every single year. I don't think we should lower those at all."
Lazard expects to return to the Packers next season. Entering his third year, the 6-foot-5 wideout is technically an exclusive rights free agent, meaning Green Bay has the exclusive right to sign Lazard to a one-year deal at the league minimum. Lazard can't sign with another team and doesn't want to.
He wants to be in Green Bay, where he can continue to build a relationship with Rodgers, play alongside his childhood favorite, Jimmy Graham -- if the tight end returns -- and learn at the feet of the Pro Bowl wideout Adams, whose quick and narrow release off the line Lazard is aiming to emulate.
Behind Adams on Green Bay's depth chart, Lazard will be competing with Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown, Jake Kumerow and draft picks/free-agent aquisitions to be named later for the No. 2 spot; Geronimo Allison is an unrestricted free agent.
Thought of by Gutekunst earlier in his career as a potential tight end because of his size, Lazard is willing to do anything to stay on the field at Lambeau, though he'd prefer to play wideout alongside Adams and Co.
"When Davante's making plays and someone else is making plays and someone else is making plays, it has a trickle effect in that room," Lazard said. "We really feed off each other's energy. I'm really excited to get back there and work with those guys again."
Self-scouting himself as "one of the better blockers, especially for a receiver, in the league," Lazard said he thinks he's best utilized in the box and the slide area to knock unsuspecting linebackers and safeties off their blocks.
Wherever he is in the offensive formation, Lazard's happy to have found a home in the NFL. Less than two years removed from going undrafted out of Iowa State, the receiver finally feels at home in Wisconsin.
"Last year, it was just a lot of uncertainty, especially with the new coach and what not, I didn't know what to expect coming back to Green Bay," Lazard said. "Obviously having this year underneath my belt, being in the system, knowing the coaches and how things operate in Green Bay, I'm a lot more comfortable and know where I need to be when I show up back in April."