GREEN BAY — For as much as Allen Lazard and Darrius Shepherd have accomplished during the first three weeks of training camp to create a buzz about their roster chances, perhaps the most impressive thing the two Green Bay Packers young wide receivers have shown is self-awareness.
Because while both are in the process of building compelling cases to be on the 53-man roster at camp’s end, they also realize this: They haven’t really accomplished anything yet.
“I’m happy with what I’ve onde, but I have to do more,” Shepherd said last week. “You can always improve on whatever it is. I have a lot to show and improve the next two weeks.”
Or, as Lazard put it, “I feel great, obviously. But it’s just kind of an every-day mindset. I’ve always stood by the motto of, ‘Play the next play,’ whether the last play was good or bad. I’m very determined to make the team, obviously. I just want to do whatever I can to help this team win a Super Bowl. Whatever chances I get to go out there and play — whether it’s special teams, offense or even defense, I’m going to go out there and play as hard as I can.
“I just want to show these coaches I can do it all, whether it’s inside, outside, blocking, catching, special teams. No matter what it is.”
Both 23-year-old receivers have shown the coaching staff quite a bit halfway through preseason. Lazard has caught four passes for a team-high 90 yards and one touchdown in the first two games while Shepherd has four catches for 25 yards and a team-best two TDs.
But each of them also has been impressive in practice, catching the attention of quarterback Aaron Rodgers and backups DeShone Kizer, Tim Boyle and Manny Wilkins with their attention to detail and football intellect.
“Whenever you look at football, a lot of the time people think, ‘Bigger, faster, stronger.’ And I think there’s been a lot of cases on a lot of teams where it’s, ‘The smarter you are, the better chance you have to get out there, the more people that will trust you,’” offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said Saturday. “Because really, we’re choreographing 11 people to do their job, and the minute that one guy doesn’t do his job, it could make a catastrophic play.
“Those two guys, I think they’ve really grasped that and they’ve really worked hard to be able to play any position anywhere and earned the trust of a lot of us — from the coaching staff to other players to the quarterbacks. But that just gives you an opportunity. Once you get that opportunity to go out there and continually move up, now you have to go out and make a play. Those guys have put themselves in position to get out on the field and show what they can do and they’re both making some plays here and there.”
That mental acuity is particularly important when playing with Rodgers, who has long demanded that receivers be where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be there. While Rodgers can be tough on young receivers with his expectations, he’s also been quick to praise players when they show him what he believes is vital to success at the position. And Rodgers has seen those things from Lazard and Shepherd.
“I’ve never felt like there’s been a real difficult recipe or plan. It’s, you know what you’re doing, you’re in the right spot at the right time and you don’t make repeat mental mistakes,” Rodgers said. “The greatest thing a young player can do is not repeat a mistake because a repeat mistake a lot of time is tied to preparation — locking that thing away in your mind so you don’t make the same mistake twice because it maybe shows you don’t care to fix something.
“The key is, being reliable and earning my trust. I think Allen has had a really nice camp. And then obviously ‘Shep’ has done some nice things, too. Again, the key with him is he’s been really good mentally. He’s not having any mistakes or repeat mistakes with plays as far as alignment. He’s fine in his feel, running routes. There’s a lot of opportunities for young guys on that side of the ball, and obviously I love to see the progression with those guys.”
Added Boyle: “I think the four of us (quarterbacks) knew in the spring that (Shepherd) was going to be a talented guy. It was just a matter of kind of getting him some reps, getting his feet wet. He’s just a smart, instinctive player. He doesn’t make many mistakes. He has sure hands. When Shep’s out there, you know what he’s going to do. He’s going to do it right. He’s a reliable guy for us.”
Or, as Kizer put it, “I think he was probably the first guy in this locker room to learn the playbook — before any quarterback learned it. He put a bunch of effort and time into making sure he was going to prepared to play. We all knew that he had the ability, with the speed and his smarts and his route-running, to be able to play well. I think it’s been shown throughout training camp. I wouldn’t be surprised if he continued to do it all the rest of the preseason and hopefully into the regular season.”
Of course, to get to the regular season, both Shepherd and Lazard must make the roster. And while the 6-foot-5, 227-pound Lazard and the 5-11, 186-pound Shepherd have certainly looked like they belong, the wide receiver position beyond No. 1 target Davante Adams is far from settled.
Behind Adams, it would seem that, barring injury, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Geronimo Allison and former UW-Whitewater star Jake Kumerow are sure bets to be atop the receiver rotation when the season kicks off Sept. 5 at Chicago. Beyond that, though, there’s uncertainty about just how many receivers the Packers will even keep on the 53-man roster given the differences in coach Matt LaFleur’s offense from predecessor Mike McCarthy’s scheme.
From the importance of the run game, to the value a fullback has in LaFleur’s system, to how LaFleur likes to deploy tight ends, there might not be room on the roster for six or seven receivers as there has been in past years. That leaves Lazard and Shepherd battling a pair of draft picks from a year ago (Equanimeous St. Brown and J’Mon Moore) and veteran returner/receiver Trevor Davis (sidelined with a stinger since Aug. 5) for what might be only one or two roster spots.
That said, both LaFleur and general manager Brian Gutekunst have insisted the best players will make the roster, and that considerations such as being a draft pick or having more experience won’t make them keep lesser players over players of lesser pedigrees who are more deserving and can be more effective.
“There’s nothing that’s locked in place at this point,” LaFleur said. “They’ve (both) done a great job. And I think you see it by the number of reps they’re getting. ‘Shep’ was starting at kick return and punt return (against Baltimore), and Allen’s just done everything we’ve asked him to do. And he’s not only on offense, but on special teams as well.
“Both those guys have done a really nice job. And I do think you have to reward guys for not only really good play but the effort that they show on a daily basis. It’s consistent with both those guys. Again, two smart guys that know what to do and they’re able to go out there and play fast.”