For the very first time in his professional career, Greg Ward has job security.
If he can avoid a catastrophic injury in the next three weeks, there is a season-opening roster spot waiting for the 25-year-old Eagles wide receiver. Not just a roster spot, but a starting job, as the team’s slot receiver.
After three failed training camp attempts at making the roster, after spending a significant chunk of the last three seasons on the team’s practice squad and moonlighting in a spring league (the Alliance of American Football) that went belly-up after eight games, Ward finally got his chance late last season and ran with it.
With the Eagles’ wideouts falling like flies, Ward was promoted from the practice squad in late November and caught 28 passes – 18 for first downs – in the Eagles’ final six regular-season games. His game-winning Week 15 touchdown pass against Washington kept the team’s playoff hopes alive.
“When you’re in the situation Greg was in, you’re always wondering, ‘Am I good enough?’ ” said Eagles wide receivers coach Aaron Moorehead. “Then you get a chance, and you play well and perform, make a game-winning touchdown catch.
“That takes your confidence through the roof. That’s half the battle sometimes in the NFL, just knowing you can do it, and having the quarterback know you can do it.”
Ward figures to be an important part of the Eagles’ offense this season. With DeSean Jackson healthy again, with the outside speed the Eagles added in the draft, it’s going to open things up inside for Ward, who earned quarterback Carson Wentz’s trust down the stretch last season with his ability to find the soft spots in zone defenses.
But if you’re looking for even the slightest trace of complacency, you won’t find it. Ward is approaching this training camp and this season no different than he did the previous three. He’s approaching it as if his back is against the wall again.
“My whole mindset is that I don’t have a starting spot right now,” he told reporters Wednesday. “I’m still fighting every single day. My mindset will never change. I have to outwork everybody not only here but around the league. I have to make sure I’m always on the top of my game.‘'
Ward still is one of the last players off the NovaCare practice field every day. He’s like the high school kid you have to chase out of the gym. Even after a long practice, he’ll stick around to work on his route-running, and then spend as long as an hour catching balls from the JUGS gun.
“I’ve always been like that,” he said. “After practice, I’ll stay until whatever time I can, whatever time they’ll allow me to so that I can keep getting better.
“If something happened in practice that I wasn’t happy with, I’m going to work on it after practice. The time doesn’t even matter. Until I feel comfortable with it, that’s when I stop.”
Ward is a coach’s dream. He is the perfect role model for the three young wide receivers the Eagles drafted in April – Jalen Reagor, John Hightower, and Quez Watkins.
“I have to make sure those young guys stay on top of their stuff,” he said. “I’m bringing them along. Alshon [Jeffery] and DeSean are bringing me along. We’re all working together, man. We all need each other.
“Those [young] guys, they all lean on me, ask me a lot of questions. I’m an open book. Whatever they need, I’m right there with them. They need to see how to do certain things and how you’re supposed to carry yourself on and off the field.”
Moorehead, who was the wide receivers coach at Texas A&M when Ward was playing quarterback for the University of Houston, couldn’t stop gushing about him.
“Greg’s in a great mental place right now,” he said. “When you look at his tape, he’s a good natural receiver. He’s good in space. He has good spatial awareness. He understands where the zones are. He understands how to beat man coverage.
“Obviously some of that comes from his quarterback background. He knows how things are supposed to look. But he’s just a natural athlete, a natural football player. It’s not a shock that he’s starting to come into his own.
“Greg’s been great. He’s one of the leaders of the [wide receivers] room, if not the leader of the room.”
From three-time training camp waiver-wire casualty to a short-lived spring league to the Eagles’ practice squad to a team leader. Just goes to show you what can happen when you refuse to take no for an answer, when you refuse to believe that you aren’t good enough.
“I’m always going to feel like I need to claw,” Ward said. “It keeps that edge about me. It keeps the fire in me lit. I feel like if I don’t work hard enough, then I won’t be good enough. So I always have to continue to sharpen iron and continue to get better.
“It’s been with me since I was young. My older brothers, my dad, they instilled that into me. I love the game. I always wanted to be good at it. And I want to continue to grow and get better.”
Ward’s quarterback background has helped him develop chemistry with Wentz. They don’t finish each other’s sentences like Wentz and tight end Zach Ertz. But they’re on the same wave length.
The two connected on four critical completions on the Eagles’ game-winning drive in that Week 15 win against Washington.
Ward had three-first-down catches on that drive, including a 13-yard gain on third-and-5, another 13-yard gain on second-and-13, a 10-yard gain on second-and-9, and finally, his two-yard touchdown catch against cornerback Josh Norman.
“I used to talk to [Wentz] a lot [last year],” Ward said. “Asked him a lot of questions. Honestly, we would think the same on certain plays, where he wanted me to be.