Allen Lazard Is the Key for Aaron Rodgers Returning to Superstardom

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistAugust 12, 2020

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, left, celebrates with Allen Lazard after a touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game against the New York Giants, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

Aaron Rodgers is no longer a superstar. 

The 36-year-old Green Bay Packers quarterback is a future Hall of Famer, but he hasn't surpassed the league average in yards per attempt since 2016. He hasn't been a first- or second-team All-Pro since 2014, and his 62.6 completion percentage since the start of 2017 ranks 25th among 31 qualified passers over that span.

It hasn't helped that Rodgers has often been hampered by injuries and/or a lack of support in the Green Bay offense. If he's suddenly going to turn his career around and again become the game-changing quarterback he once was, he'll need more than one top-notch pass-catcher in his supporting cast. 

Following a quiet offseason on that front from the Packers, there's no guarantee that will be the case. Aside from Davante Adams, no receiver or tight end currently on the Green Bay roster caught more than 35 passes, hit the 500-yard plateau or scored more than three touchdowns in 2019. 

Rodgers desperately needs somebody to reach another level in his pass-catching corps, especially following the departure of veteran tight end Jimmy Graham and a 2020 opt-out from free-agent signee Devin Funchess.

And the first guy most of us will look to is a third-year undrafted Iowa State product who has started three games over his first two NFL seasons. 

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Good luck, Allen Lazard. The Packers are counting on you. 

Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

Rodgers has been robbed of a true one-two pass-catching punch since the end of the Jordy Nelson era, but Lazard showed signs in 2019 that he could become a strong starting wideout. 

The Packers must believe he has it in him. Why else would the front office largely ignore the wide receiver position in free agency and then consistently pass on receivers in a draft that contained one of the deepest wideout classes in NFL history? 

Lazard, who spent most of his rookie season on the Jacksonville Jaguars' practice squad, didn't even make the initial 53-man Green Bay roster last season. But Rodgers appeared to see something in him. He "put in a good word" on his behalf in order to get him some reps late in a Week 6 matchup with the Detroit Lions, and Lazard came through with four receptions for 65 yards and a touchdown on five targets.

All of that came with the game on the line, and the 24-year-old was a fixture in the Green Bay offense for the rest of the season. 

Lazard recently spoke about his on-field relationship with Rodgers, per Bill Huber of Sports Illustrated:

"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. 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."

Lazard dropped only two of the 52 passes thrown his way, and Rodgers posted a 115.6 passer rating when targeting him (compared to 99.1 when throwing to Adams). He was one of only nine qualified NFL players to average at least 13 yards per catch while pulling in at least 67 percent of the passes thrown his way, he was at his best in crunch time, and he was clutch on third downs.

"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, per Huber, who believes Lazard is the "overwhelming favorite" to start opposite Adams following Funchess' decision to opt out. 

It's possible that somebody other than Lazard will emerge throughout training camp. Fellow young wideouts Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Jake Kumerow and Equanimeous St. Brown have all had their moments, but Valdes-Scantling has a sub-50 percent career catch rate, Kumerow is even less established than Lazard, and St. Brown hasn't played since 2018.

There's also Marcedes Lewis, Robert Tonyan Jr. and Jace Sternberger at tight end, but Lewis is 36, Tonyan has caught 14 passes in two seasons, and Sternberger went catchless in his rookie campaign. 

Rodgers was at his best when he had Nelson working with Adams, and James Jones and Greg Jennings before that. Age and injuries have probably played a role in his decline, but it's no coincidence that his downfall has coincided with a lack of depth at receiver. 

Lazard has a better chance to change that than anyone on the Green Bay roster. The Packers' season might hinge on how much progress he can make in Year 3.

        

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.