Greg Ward

How Eagles are using Greg Ward to prepare for 'crazy athlete' Cam Newton

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How Eagles are using Greg Ward to prepare for 'crazy athlete' Cam Newton

Eagles wide receiver Greg Ward won’t take a single snap Thursday against the Panthers. He isn’t even on the 53-man roster. Yet, Ward might be the most important player on the practice field this week, getting his teammates prepared for the unique challenge of going up against quarterback Cam Newton.

“It was pretty fun just getting back there in the backfield,” Ward said Tuesday.

A member of the Eagles’ 10-man practice squad, Ward has been charged with emulating Newton in drills this week. Even in a practice setting, it sounds an awful lot like an impossible task. Based on size alone, Ward measures 5-foot-11, 196 pounds, compared to Newton listed at 6-5, 245 — not to mention his three trips to the Pro Bowl and NFL Most Valuable Player award.

Yet, while Ward may be a rookie just hoping to one day crack a roster as a receiver, the undrafted rookie also happens to have played quarterback at the University of Houston. It just so happens he may be uniquely suited for this role.

“I try to do what Cam does,” Ward said. “Cam is a crazy athlete. He can run the ball and he can throw the ball, so whatever he does.

“I’ve been watching him since I was brought up, so I kind of know how he plays. When I’m out there, I try to imitate him and do what he does.”

At his best, Newton is as difficult an athlete as there is to beat. Coincidentally, he’s been at his best the last two weeks. The seventh-year veteran completed 77.4 percent of his passes for 10.8 yards per attempt with six touchdowns and one interception, plus ran for 44 yards and a score in back-to-back wins over the Patriots and Lions.

Newton is officially hot, and he’s going to be a handful for the Eagles' defense.

“You have to be good in so many different areas,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “He can be a pocket passer, he can run the read-option, he can run designed runs, he can run off-schedule runs, but he's as good a pocket passer as there is.

“I think that's what makes it's difficult to defend every one of those. He's not a one-trick pony. He has mobility, he has designed runs. They do a lot of different things and we'll have to play our best team defense.”

It doesn’t help the Eagles have only a matter of days to prepare, as opposed to a traditional full week (see story). Practices leading up to this contest are fewer in number and significantly less involved than normal.

“In a short week, it’s tough because it’s more mental than it is physical,” Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks said. “And no matter what, it’s always going to be tough to mimic Cam.”

Despite the fact Newton can spin the football as well as anybody — he enters the week ranked fourth with a 68.3 completion percentage — Ward revealed the Eagles were focusing primarily on the signal caller’s mobility, at least as far as his involvement was concerned.

Newton isn’t even the only weapon the Eagles are worried about. Ward has also been attempting to fill the shoes of Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, the eighth overall pick in the 2017 draft and a key cog in the offense.

“I watched a couple of his games,” Ward said of McCaffrey. “I like the way he balls. I like what he brings to the table as far as the athlete he is. I think he’s an exceptional athlete.”

McCaffrey’s carries have only diminished since the beginning of the season, but he’s seeing plenty of action in the passing attack. The 21-year-old has already recorded 27 receptions for 237 yards with one touchdown.

“(The Panthers) get him the ball in the run game, use him as a true wide receiver, and then get him option routes out of the backfield,” Schwartz said. “A lot like a (Eagles running back) Darren Sproles.”

The Eagles have players like McCaffrey and Newton with Sproles and quarterback Carson Wentz. But Sproles is injured and out for the season, and Wentz must get ready for a stifling Carolina defense.

That leaves Ward to simulate what not one, but two dynamic players bring to the table for a Panthers offense that’s found a rhythm. He won’t suit up Thursday, though. All Ward is able to do now is go flat out in practice and hope that it’s making his teammates better.

“Whenever the ball touches my hands, I try to score,” Ward said. “You’re trying to make guys miss if you’re in the backfield running the ball or you’re catching it running routes. You’re just trying to score.

“That’s what the other guys are doing on other teams. They’re trying to score every time they get the ball, so that’s the best thing is just going full speed and going hard.”

Eagles-Jets preseason finale: 10 players to watch

Eagles-Jets preseason finale: 10 players to watch

Ahh, the fourth preseason game. I know you're excited. 

It's a game that means nothing to most but everything to a select few. Those few will have one last shot to battle it out for a roster spot Thursday night when the Eagles play the Jets in North Jersey. 

The starters won't play, which means Carson Wentz and his group will watch. 

If Nick Foles actually plays in this game, he's worth watching. He has practiced minimally throughout the summer and hasn't played in any of the preseason games. He finally returned to practice Monday but missed Tuesday because he was sick. Head coach Doug Pederson as of Tuesday hadn't made up his mind about whether or not Foles would play, but the team doesn't seem to be worried about forcing him into action. 

With that said, here are 10 other Eagles to watch on Thursday night: 

Dexter McDougle 
The Eagles traded for McDougle on Sunday and he'll face his former team Thursday night. Not a ton of time to prepare for the young cornerback. But as Jalen Mills said earlier this week, "Man is man, zone is zone," no matter what defense a corner is playing in. McDougle is a late-arriver but keep an eye on him in the slot. That might be a position that fits him in Philly. 

Beau Allen
Allen returned from the non-football injury list this week after completely healing from his torn pec. He's entering a contract season and is probably still the Eagles' top backup defensive tackle, although Destiny Vaeao was impressive in Allen's absence. Don't expect Allen to play a ton Thursday, but he should get a few snaps and we'll see where he is. 

Rick Lovato 
It's the fourth preseason game and I'm telling you to watch a long snapper. I apologize. But let's be honest, you were going to watch Jon Dorenbos' replacement anyway, weren't you? The Eagles were impressed enough with Lovato at the end of last year and this offseason to move on from their longest-tenured player. If Lovato has a bad snap Thursday … 

Billy Brown 
When asked recently about which position battles he's watching in these final days, Pederson surprisingly mentioned the tight ends. That's surprising because the top three guys — Zach Ertz, Trey Burton and Brent Celek — haven't changed. What has changed is Brown, a young receiver-turned-tight end from Shepherd. Brown has been impressive all summer and might have the Eagles thinking about keeping four tight ends.

Corey Clement 
Clement has done everything right this summer. The running back from Glassboro, New Jersey, has run the ball well, pass protected and even shown his growing ability as a pass-catcher. But will it be enough? It seems unlikely the Eagles would keep five running backs, so in the group of LeGarrette Blount, Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood and Donnel Pumphrey, who would go? The easy answer might be Pumphrey, but he's a fourth-round pick and it would be very rare to give up on him this early. Clement has one more chance to prove his worth. 

Greg Ward
After a really strong start to training camp, Ward has kind of been forgotten in recent weeks. The former University of Houston quarterback made a pretty seamless transition to NFL receiver and turned heads early in camp. He still has a chance to make the roster. After the first four receivers — Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, Nelson Agholor, Mack Hollins — Marcus Johnson is probably the next guy up. If the Eagles keep six, Ward is battling with Shelton Gibson and Bryce Treggs for that last spot. 

Taylor Hart 
It's crazy to think, but it wouldn't be that big of a surprise if Hart makes the Eagles' roster as an offensive tackle. He switched positions in the spring, flipping from defensive to offensive tackle and hasn't looked completely out of place. Now, he very likely wouldn't be ready to take snaps this year, but the Eagles might think they have something in him. 

Alex McCalister
Expect McCalister and Steven Means to play a ton in this last game. We listed McCalister instead of Means because, based on performance and the latter's extension Wednesday (see story), McCalister is the one playing catch-up. Now, he was a late-round draft pick a year ago, so maybe that gives him one advantage. But in terms of on-field play to go with a new deal, it will be tough to keep Means off the roster. A big game from McCalister can't hurt, though.

Justin Hamilton 
Allen's return from the NFI list was bad news for Hamilton, who has been having a very quiet but good summer. With Allen back, there's one less roster spot up for grabs. That means Hamilton is fighting with draft pick Elijah Qualls for a spot. Qualls has come on strong lately and has a lot of untapped potential. 

Aaron Grymes
The former CFL cornerback might have made the 2016 team but he injured his shoulder in this game a year ago. With Ron Brooks gone, it appears that either Patrick Robinson or McDougle will take the slot role, but don't sleep on Grymes just yet. He got some run with the first-team defense in the nickel corner spot and is a natural fit there. 

Eagles notes, quotes and tidbits: Frank Reich praises WR group, competition is 'very tight'

Eagles notes, quotes and tidbits: Frank Reich praises WR group, competition is 'very tight'

If Howie Roseman's goal at the wide receiver position this offseason was to turn a weakness into a strength, he certainly achieved it. 

Even after the trade of Jordan Matthews. 

As the Eagles approach their final preseason game on Thursday night, there is an intense battle brewing for the final receiver spot or two. 

"This is, without a doubt, the best group that I've been around for a while," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said Monday. "I mean, from top to bottom, very competitive. They've all flashed. They all deserve to be here. I believe some of these guys, for a couple guys who might not be here, I think they're going to end up someplace else. That's how confident we feel in this group.

"I think, all in all, we're just very happy with the progress they've made and the chemistry in that room and the production that they've had in practice and in games."

It's unclear what the Eagles' receivers group will look like after final cuts. The Eagles kept just five wideouts after final cuts in 2016, but there seems to be a decent chance they'll carry six into 2017. 

Most folks seem to think these four players are locks for the roster: Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, Nelson Agholor and Mack Hollins. 

That means the Eagles have these six players fighting it out for either one or two remaining spots: Marcus Johnson, Shelton Gibson, Bryce Treggs, Greg Ward, Paul Turner and Rashard Davis. 

Gibson was a fifth-round draft pick who played better later in the summer after a disastrous start, but he's not guaranteed a spot. Johnson has been very impressive and might be the front-runner. Treggs was on the team last year but didn't have much of an impact. Turner made the initial roster in 2016, but was cut shortly after to make room for Treggs; this summer he's dealt with a serious shoulder injury. Ward is a converted quarterback who has shown a lot of promise. And Davis is a latecomer but is a proven return man. 

There are decisions to be made and they might not be easy. 

So how tight is the competition for those last couple of spots? 

"It's tight. It's very tight. It's always tight," Reich said. "When it comes down to those last roster spots, Coach always emphasizes that it's not only what they do as a receiver, but what they do on special teams, and how they can contribute. Position versatility and special teams, all those things factor into the roster."

For a long time, Matthews was the fifth receiver who was guaranteed to make the roster. His departure in the Ronald Darby trade seemed to open up opportunity for another player. 

"If I'm in that room, and I'm one of those players, yeah, you have to believe that," Reich said. 

More snaps for Kendricks?
Mychal Kendricks has been having a pretty productive preseason. That might be putting it too lightly. 

"Yeah, well, I don't know if you could have any more production than him in the preseason," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "Good gracious. A little bit of it is being opportunistic, but he's been in the right spots."

Kendricks' production is hard to argue with. In three preseason games, he has three interceptions and returned one of them for a touchdown. 

But the real question surrounding Kendricks is if this is the beginning of more playing time. Last year, he was a part-time player despite being a starter in the team's base package. He was the odd linebacker out when the Eagles went to the nickel package, which happens about 70 percent of the time. It's possible that the Eagles could find ways to use Kendricks as a blitzer — a role in which he thrives — but Schwartz has been hesitant in the past because he didn't want to tip their hand in such situations. 

Schwartz, though, did reveal something interesting on Monday. Because Jordan Hicks has missed some time recently with a sore groin (he's expected to be fine for the opener), the Eagles worked their nickel package a little differently on Sunday. Nigel Bradham slid into the MIKE position and Kendricks replaced him in the two-linebacker nickel package. That's a look the Eagles will probably never use in the season when Hicks is healthy, but right now, they're trying to prepare for everything.

"If we had a game today, Jordan Hicks couldn't play," Schwartz said. "It's our responsibility to get the guys that can best produce on the field. He's certainly forced himself into that conversation."

Back and Beau than ever
Big ol' Beau Allen returned to the practice field on Sunday afternoon after passing his physical and being removed from the non-football injury list. Allen was pretty excited to get back on the field after working out privately throughout all of training camp. 

But apparently, those private workouts on separate fields kept him in good shape — "great shape," according to Schwartz. 

"Talking to him yesterday, he felt his timing was off a little bit, just timing of hands and steps," Schwartz said. "That will come back to him. He even said to me that this isn't his first rodeo. It will come back quick.

"Ideally, we'd like to get him some time in this game. He's fine. But just for, in my mind, and in his mind mentally, when we play the [Washington] Redskins, it's no longer, ‘How is it going to feel?’"