By Paul Bowman, Sports Talk Philly Editor
The Eagles made it a point to get faster this offseason, particularly in the wide receiver room.
The additions of Jalen Reagor, John Hightower, Marquise Goodwin, Quez Watkins and even former college quarterback Khalil Tate served to add to a unit that figures to get back both DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery and had Deontay Burnett, Robert Davis, Shelton Gibson and Greg Ward Jr. on the roster at the conclusion of the 2020 campaign.
There is certain to be change in the locker room, but there is one thing that should remain the same: Greg Ward Jr.
There are no Eagles fans that would argue that receiver wasn't a position of disappointment in 2019 that needed attention and with the pandemic, nearly every sports fan was following the NFL Draft.
From an organizational perspective, the Eagles were looking to acquire young receivers who could learn and grow with Wentz so that there would be long-lasting chemistry and a playmaker that he could rely on for years to come. They did just that and acquired four receivers over the three days of the draft.
Fans were and are, rightfully, excited to see what the new additions could do, but the expectations for them were barely tempered. Many projected a new depth chart that either did not feature Ward or had Ward on the roster bubble as someone liable to lose their job in camp.
Tossing Ward aside as the outcast in this new group is an odd decision and should not be made so easily.
Jackson and Jeffery don't fit the "young" criteria and neither does the 30-year old Marquise Goodwin. Fans would likely consider the "young" options to be JJ Arcega-Whiteside and the newly drafted Jalen Reagor, John Hightower and Quez Watkins.
The one receiver with a good shot at a roster spot not in either of those groups is Greg Ward, who joined the team as an undrafted free agent during the 2017 season. Despite the fact that he played last season and was available two years before that, Ward is just 24 - one year older than Arcega-Whiteside and the same age as Hightower.
Ward is still a young player and has been around the Eagles for much of three seasons, growing form a college quarterback to an effective receiver down the stretch last season, all the while with Carson Wentz as the franchise quarterback of the team.
From basic metrics, Ward was average, posting 28 catches for 254 yards and one touchdown in six games. Over a full season, that would be 75 catches for 677 yards and three touchdowns - and that was with no other wide receivers posing any major threat. These stats also include two games where he played fewer than 50% of snaps.
What was impressive about his play, however, is that he averaged over nine yards per catch with nearly three and a half yards after the catch and 18 of his 28 receptions going for first downs. Two of the three catches he had in his lone playoff game also went for first downs. That's 64.5% of his receptions going for first downs. When matched up with his full season projections, that'd be 48 first downs.
If stock is placed in Pro Football Focus, they gave Ward a 73.4 overall grade in 2019, a grade that is fitting of a starting-caliber player. For reference, the 10th-best receiver in the league (by their grades) last season received a grade of 83.
All of that is despite the fact that he lacks elite size (he is just 5' 11") or speed (4.59 40-yard dash).
Ward's stats are good, but he brings a different skill set to the team, too.
While the three rookies that were Jackson Goodwin and the three rookies the team drafted are best suited for the Z (or the team will focus on teaching them that position) and Jeffery and Arcega-Whiteside are built to be the X, Ward represents the lone slot specialist in the room.
Other receivers can play the slot, such as Reagor who played in the slot at times in college, the departure of Nelson Agholor leaves the starting slot role unfilled. With Doug Pederson saying they will focus on teaching Reagor the Z role the only other candidates to take any snaps in the slot would seem to be JJAW and Hightower, assuming he earns a roster spot. Even at that, Arcega-Whiteside may start outside if Alshon Jeffery isn't healthy to start the season.
From an on-field perspective, Ward brings a skill set that not many other receivers on the team can provide while also being a solid, young target that can continue to grow and has the potential to produce more with more game experience and improved outside threats to open him up even more. Despite that, there could be additional benefits to keeping Ward around.
One reason is Ward, particularly in those final four games, seemed to gain the trust of Wentz in a way that only wideouts like Jordan Matthews, Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith and DeSean Jackson have.
Not only does Ward represent a young player who has grown with Wentz and already has that chemistry, but he represents something for the young players to shoot for.
Ward is an undrafted free agent who switched positions and spent three years trying to crack an NFL roster. That's the kind of inspiration that a team could benefit from having around and could assist and encourage other players along leading to benefits in development and adding to the team's locker room culture.
In fact, outside of third and fourth-string running backs and the offensive line reserves, there are essentially no other formerly undrafted players who have an inside track to make the Eagles 53-man roster on offense. The only other UDFA receivers on the roster are Manasseh Bailey (2020), Deontay Burnett (2018) and college quarterback Khalil Tate (2020). Ward's presence would be extremely beneficial for someone like Tate developing for the future and his landing on the practice squad would not be a surprise, but none of the three have much of a chance at making the roster unless there are major changes.
As it stands, Ward would figure to be the only undrafted player to see any major time on the field on offense if he were to start in the slot. That kind of inspiration is key for the young players who find themselves on the outside looking in - it gives them something to shoot for. With Peters out of the picture, Philadelphia lacks that example.
Particularly the added three years of grinding before he made an appearance is the kind of blue-collar work ethic that Philly loves and the kind of mindset that the team would love to instill in all of their players.
Ward has nearly everything going for him, so to put him on the outs again would be the wrong move. Expect to see him continue to develop with Carson Wentz.