If the Philadelphia Eagles are going to start Greg Ward, why not use him like one?
The surprise breakout star of the 2019 season, Ward came into camp – his fourth as an Eagle – with the impressive distinction of not only being a roster lock but a near-unquestioned starter at slot wide receiver. Gone were the days of fighting for a roster spot, playing running quarterback in practice, and wearing a single-digit number, and in their place came a bigger, more confident Ward ready to make plays both on the offensive side of the ball and on special teams as a punt returner.
Not too shabby for the second-leading receiver in the history of the now-defunct San Antonio Commanders.
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While Ward did eventually receive some competition in the slot, with everyone from Jalen Reagor, to Quez Watkins, and even 2020’s summertime star Deontay Burnett taking snaps on the interior, when the Eagles’ first official depth chart was published, Ward remained entrenched as a starter, without a single other receiver earmarked for the Y spot. Factor in Watkins starting out the season on IR, and Burnett passing through waivers to earn a spot on the practice squad, and in theory, Ward should be lighting things up as Carson Wentz‘s (wide receiver) safety blanket across the middle of the field.
Only, here’s the thing, Ward really isn’t ‘lighting things up’ by any stretch of the imagination.
Despite earning his first start of the season at wide receiver in Week 2, Ward saw his targets and receptions drop sharply against the Rams – going from five catches for 31 yards on seven targets against Washington to a single catch on two targets for five yards versus LA.
But wait, it gets even worse.
Ward also saw his offensive snaps take a considerable nose dive in his second game of the season, dropping from 30 snaps (44 percent) as a non-starter in Week 1 to a measly 13 (18 percent) in Week 2. While one would assume Ward’s snaps maybe took a dive because of an uptick of usage on special teams, that too wasn’t the case, as his usage also went down in the home opener with Ward only played a single snap and didn’t use it to return a punt.
What gives? Sure, the Eagles have a slew of new offensive options to throw to, as Reagor, John Hightower, and do-it-all quarterback/h-back/receiver Jalen Hurts combined for 70 Week 2 snaps, but it’s not like Ward is somehow diminished by these additions. If anything, Ward’s experience in Doug Pederson‘s system should lead to a more expansive role in the offense, not a smaller one.
Seriously, it’s not like the Eagles’ offense looks all that different than in years prior (burn).
With Wentz suffering through a string of ineffective play, receivers like Ward, Dallas Goedert, and Zach Ertz should be receiving more looks with each passing week, not less. In Week 2, DeSean Jackson changed his game up on the fly, going from the best deep threat in the league to a certified possession receiver averaging 10.67 yards per catch (more on that here).
When Alshon Jeffery is finally cleared to play, and Watkins finally comes off IR sometime after Week 3, the Eagles will have five wide receivers on their active roster; six if the team doesn’t outright waive JJ Arcega-Whiteside (too easy, sorry). While Pederson could continue to use each player in a ridged, singular role with very little wiggle room or creativity, having an influx of potential pass catchers could also allow the team to spread things out and stress opposing defenses at every level of the field. Ward, for his part, could still excel in such a role, as he’s one of the only receivers on the Eagles’ roster with experience playing in the slot, and can feast on short-to-intermediate routes against a fourth-string cornerback while Reagor and Jackson run go routes on the outside.
In 2017, Zach Ertz earned his first Pro Bowl nod thanks to the presence of an in-his-prime Jeffery and Torrey Smith on the outside. Ertz received more one-on-one looks and was able to shine as the Eagles’ top-earning receiver – amassing a team-high 824 yards on 74 catches and eight touchdowns. With Reagor, Jackson, Ertz, and Goedert all (presumably) receiving priority on a defensive coordinator’s pecking order, Ward could conceivably soak up similar ‘easy’ yards on underneath routes while continuing to move the chains and run the clock.
Is Greg Ward the Philadelphia Eagles’ best wide receiver? Objectively, no. Ward has as many single-digit receiving games as he does 50-plus (two) and maintains a career yards-per-reception average of 34.8 over a 10 game sample size. With that being said, Ward 100 percent deserves a spot on the Eagles roster and even deserves to steal a few starts a season away from Dallas Goedert, who is averaging 37 more snaps per game. If Doug Pederson is serious about getting his offense back on track and actually winning a game against Joe Burrow‘s hapless Cincinnati Bengals, there are worse ways to go about it than giving players Carson Wentz is comfortable targeting a few more looks a game over say, a former second-round pick who just can’t seem to get open in the red zone (again, too easy).