First, let’s start off with what Greg Ward is not.
The Philadelphia Eagles’ second-year wide receiver is not a No. 1 wideout, nor is he a No. 2. He’s not tall and he’s not super-fast. He doesn’t do any of the things that light up YouTube, he doesn’t leave opposing cornerbacks in the dust, and he doesn’t leave defenders hugging air as they try to tackle him in the open field.
Now, let’s talk about what Greg Ward does do.
Greg Ward gets open and Greg Ward catches the football.
That’s a quaint skillset that not many Eagles wide receivers could lay claim to in 2019, and it’s one of the reasons why he emerged from the practice squad to be one of the most important members of Doug Pederson’s offense down the stretch last year. Without Greg Ward, the Eagles don’t win the NFC East and they don’t make the playoffs. He caught 28 balls for 257 yards last season, only one of them for a touchdown, but it was a pretty big one.
In the second of their four-game, NFC East-only blitz in the final month of the season, the Birds were in danger of watching their postseason dreams crushed by lowly Washington. But, down 27-24 in the final minutes, Ward came up with four catches for 40 yards, one of them that game-winning touchdown, and hauled in 7 for 61 overall as the Eagles pulled out the win, 31-27.
Ward came up big the following week in the Week 16 do-or-die match-up against the Cowboys, bringing in four catches for 71 yards before adding an additional six catches for 63 yards in the season finale against the Giants. He had a knack for converting third downs into first downs as the team’s slot receiver over the final six weeks of the season and had everyone in the city wondering why he was languishing on the practice squad while Nelson Agholor and JJ Arcega-Whiteside dropped passes as if the ball were made out of COVID-19.
The former Houston college star gave Wentz a security blanket at the wide receiver position that he hadn’t had all year, but what kind of role should there be for him in 2020? DeSean Jackson, if healthy, is clearly going to be one of the team’s two outside receivers (although Pederson will take advantage of DeSean’s abilities in the slot as well), Jalen Reagor was selected in the first round to make an impact in his rookie season, Alshon Jeffery is still on the team and, when healthy, will almost certainly see the field a good deal, and it’s hard to see the Birds totally giving up on JJAW after just one season, albeit a really, really bad one.
The Eagles also went out and traded for former 49ers speedster Marquise Goodwin. Clearly there is something there that intrigues GM Howie Roseman, and the team also drafted two additional speed wideouts in 5th-rounder John Hightower and 6th-rounder Quez Watkins. Both those players likely won’t make the roster, but one might.
Does Ward hold onto his spot in the slot or does he get shoved down the depth chart as the team’s No. 4 or even No. 5 wide receiver? It’s clear he’s not going to be a practice squadder this year, although it’s also easy to see a scenario in which he doesn’t get nearly as much playing time as last season. And if Jeffery doesn’t come back or can’t get healthy, and/or Arcega-Whiteside looks the same as last year, and/or Jackson gets hurt again, Ward certainly could be the No. 3/slot wide receiver all season long.
Philadelphia went out of their way to get more athletic, to get faster this off-season. That’s a very good thing. Ward is not one of those players, but he showed an ability to not only find holes in the secondary, but to actually catch the football when it was thrown to him. Sometimes, that’s more valuable than speed.
The Eagles wide receiver battle will be one of the most closely watched in training camp this summer, and Greg Ward’s place on the team predicts to be one of the more fascinating aspects of that battle.