Greg Ward Jr., a quarterback in college, is hoping to catch on as a receiver for Eagles | Paul Domowitch
Ward says the time he spent at QB at the University of Houston gives him a big advantage in recognizing coverages.
THE ODDS of an undrafted free agent making a season-opening NFL roster are long, but certainly not insurmountable.
The Eagles had five undrafted rookies on their season-ending 53-man roster last year, as well as 10 veterans who had gone undrafted coming out of college, including nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters and starting safety Rodney McLeod.
Those numbers should provide a modicum of encouragement for the 11 current undrafted Eagles rookies who participated in last weekend's rookie minicamp.
"My message to them was I played 14 years (in the NFL) and I was an undrafted free agent," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said on Friday before the first workout. "So stick to it. Work hard. Show us what you can do here, and great things can happen."
On the surface, Greg Ward Jr.'s journey to a roster spot would seem to be considerably steeper than that of the other 10 Eagles undrafted rookies. He not only wasn't drafted, but also is making the switch to a new - or at least semi-new - position.
Ward began his career at the University of Houston as a wide receiver, but spent the last two years as a dual-threat quarterback. He finished with the fourth most passing yards (8,705) and fifth most passing touchdowns (52) in school history. His 39 career rushing touchdowns tied the school record.
Temple Owls fans certainly remember Ward from his prolific performance in the 2015 American Athletic Conference championship game. He threw for only 88 yards that day, but rushed for 148 and two touchdowns in a 24-13 Houston victory.
Unfortunately for Ward, his small size - he's just a hair over 5-10 and weighs only 186 pounds - pretty much put the kibosh to any shot he had of making it to the NFL as a quarterback.
So, he switched back to the position he began his college career at - wide receiver.
"I don't pass the eye test (for a quarterback)," Ward acknowledged. "There aren't many quarterbacks in the NFL my size. Probably none.
"I knew my senior year that I wasn't going to be a quarterback in the NFL. So I would stay after practice last year and run a few routes here and there and prepare myself."
Ward isn't disappointed over the position switch. He just wants to play in the NFL and he doesn't really care whether it's at quarterback or wide receiver or offensive tackle.
"The odds of making it in the NFL are pretty high for anybody," he said. "I was just thankful to get a chance, regardless of the position.
"I embraced (the switch). I feel very comfortable (at wide receiver). I'm a football player first. I can play more than one position. And I believe I can play wide receiver in the NFL."
Ward is even a tad small for a wide receiver. That's usually something NFL teams will overlook if you run a fast enough 40 at the scouting combine or your pro day.
But Ward didn't work out at the combine because of an ankle injury he had suffered in Houston's bowl game and then ran a slower than expected 4.58 at his pro day. Which is how a potential third-day pick becomes an undrafted free agent.
The Eagles view Ward as a potential slot receiver and punt returner, where the fluid hips and quickness that made him so dangerous as a running quarterback at Houston should benefit him the most.
His background as a running quarterback also gives Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich a versatile toy they can use in Wildcat formations and on jet sweeps. His first two years at Houston, he went back and forth between wide receiver and Wildcat quarterback.
There are ample examples of former college quarterbacks who became successful NFL wide receivers, going back to Freddie Solomon in the '70s and '80s up to Tom Brady's favorite receiving target, Julian Edelman.
Edelman, a quarterback at Kent State who was taken by the Patriots in the seventh round of the 2009 draft, has caught 356 passes for 2,770 yards and 20 touchdowns the last four years.
When he was the Steelers' general manager in the '90s, Eagles senior football adviser Tom Donahoe took a quarterback from the University of Georgia in the third round of the '98 draft who they converted to wide receiver.
It worked out pretty well. Hines Ward is 14th in NFL history in receptions (1,000) and tied for 15th in touchdown catches (85).
"I told him, just get your foot in the door; find an organization that will bring you in and then earn your way from there," Ward's coach at the University of Houston, Major Applewhite, said in March.
"The good thing for Greg is he's played the (wide receiver) position. There are a lot of quarterbacks that go four years (in college) and never actually play wide receiver. He's gotten off press. He's run routes. He's caught the football. He's done all that."
Ward's background as a quarterback actually gives him a little bit of an advantage at wide receiver. He has a much better feel for what defenses and defensive backs are doing than most rookie wideouts.
"It's a big advantage as far as recognizing coverages and knowing where the quarterback wants to throw the ball and recognizing routes," he said. "I think that's going to help me.
"I see the game differently. I see it as a quarterback and a wide receiver. I understand spacing, how to get open, how to sit down in a zone and make myself a target. I can run after the catch. I can play this position. I'm confident in myself."
All of that won't matter much, however, if Ward doesn't catch the ball when it's thrown to him, which is why he plans to become very good friends with the JUGS gun at the NovaCare Complex this spring and summer.
"I've been working hard on my route-running and catching," he said. "Just trying not to get in my own head and working hard and trying to stay positive and continue to work on the same stuff every single day. That's how you master something."
And that's how an undrafted rookie can end up on a season-opening 53-man roster.