On Tuesday evening, just minutes after scoring a new contract that will change his family’s life for generations, Dee Ford was finally willing to utter the word that he’d avoided using for so long, the word that many had thrown around to describe him until this season.
“You mean ‘bust’?” Ford told Yahoo Sports with a laugh.
Ford wraps himself in positivity. That’s the mindset behind his refusal to use the “b” word for years in Kansas City, where many were quick to leave the former 2014 first-round pick for dead after his first two seasons in Kansas City yielded little fruit.
Now, on the heels of a killer 2018 contract season in which he proved himself to be one of the NFL’s best pass rushers, the 28-year-old — who had just agreed in principle to a five-year, $87.5 million extension with the San Francisco 49ers following a trade that sent Ford to the 49ers for a 2020 second-round pick — needed little prodding during a phone interview to use the word he’d avoided.
“For so long, I’ve been fighting the narrative … of [not] being a solid first-round draft pick,” Ford said, excitedly. “For so long, I’ve been fighting that narrative that I’m not that good, that I didn’t qualify as [a good pick].”
Ford went through it in Kansas City. In his first two seasons, he was stuck behind Pro Bowl edge rushers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, and recorded a total of only 31 tackles and 5 1/2 sacks as a rotational pass rusher from 2014-2015. During that time, pressure and speculation mounted about whether Ford — who has long been picked on for his run defense — was any good, and at one point, he told his watchful, tight-knit family to stop checking Twitter and articles about him.
“I had no way of proving [people] wrong until the end of 2015 — I felt out of control,” Ford said. “Only coaches knew what I could do, and the only coach that had the evidence of it was my position coach.”
Problem was, Ford says he clashed with the Chiefs’ linebackers coach at the time, Gary Gibbs, who was fired after the 2017 season. Ford says he never felt like Gibbs believed in him, and adds that it’s no coincidence that when Mike Smith replaced Gibbs in 2018, he responded by finishing tied for seventh in the NFL in sacks (13) and tied for fifth in hurries (29).
Yet, even during his star turn in 2018, he says it sometimes felt like people were shocked he was any good.
“And I’m like, ‘Yo, I was a first-round draft pick, bro,’” Ford says with a laugh. “I did come here and showcase what I could do [in 2016] too.”
Indeed. Ford thought he had quieted some of the bust talk in 2016, when he led the Chiefs in sacks (10) and hurries (17). But he quickly began to feel counted out after a herniated disc in his back limited him to two sacks and seven hurries in six games in 2017, and he never lost that feeling, even during a largely triumphant 2018 campaign.
“It’s crazy how the brain works,” Ford says. “It’s almost like, once you lie to somebody, they only remember you as a liar. So, once I was presented to them as a player that struggled, I was always that player that struggled. Always.”
Ford leaves the Chiefs on good terms — “I really appreciate everything Kansas City has done for me, and I appreciated playing in Kansas City,” he says — and he’s ready for a fresh start in San Francisco, where the 49ers view him as one of the game’s best at his position. They’re paying him like one, after all, as a source told Yahoo Sports that his new deal is worth approximately $45 million in guarantees.
To Ford, the cold, hard cash is tangible proof that he is, in fact, a good player, someone who lived up to his status as the No. 23 overall pick in 2014, even though the team that drafted him (Kansas City) didn’t value him enough to ante up.
“I feel appreciated,” said Ford, who had just gotten off a phone call with the 49ers brass and his agent and mentor, Adisa Bakari, minutes before. “Me knowing they believe in me ... talking to the GM, talking to the owner, talking to the head coach ... they couldn’t wait [for me to get there].”
At one point during his interview with Yahoo Sports, Ford looked at his phone and saw the 49ers had surrendered a second-round pick for his rights, in addition to the money they were set to hand him, prompting him to chuckle.
“Damn, and they gave up a second-round pick,” Ford said. “They don’t understand what they’re about to get — I needed this, bro.”
Ford said he expects to be better for the 49ers in 2019, as he had his monster season in 2018 despite showing up to training camp at 232 pounds — 10 pounds under his playing weight — due to recovery from his back injury, which kept him from lifting the way he wanted to do.
“No offseason, no nothing,” Ford said. “I just had to go. Now you’re talking about me in a new system, with a offseason.”
Ford, in fact, says he expects to be a “clean” 245 pounds with the 49ers this season, which he expects to make a difference in his run defense in San Francisco.
“Last year, at the point of attack, I wasn’t very strong — sometimes, they could knock me off my path,” Ford said. “Now, I’m gonna be like a Ferrari, but with an 18-wheeler’s force. I’m gonna have the muscle mass behind it.”
What’s more, Ford is excited to get back to rushing the passer almost exclusively and getting back to a less-cerebral brand of football, as he dropped into coverage on over 100 of his 1,100-plus snaps last season under (now-fired) defensive coordinator Bob Sutton.
The 49ers’ eight edge rushers, by comparison, dropped into coverage only a combined total of 80 times in 2018.
“I didn’t have anything against Bob’s defense — we were just in conflict a lot of times,” Ford said. “One guy could be my coverage so I couldn’t be aggressive against the run and tee off like I want to.”
During his phone call with the 49ers on Tuesday night, their brass made it clear to him that they expect to play an aggressive brand of football, featuring Ford doing what he does best — get upfield and make plays, alongside the likes of new inside linebacker Kwon Alexander and multiple Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman.
“Music to my ears,” Ford said. “We’re going after the quarterback every play.”
Ford’s Kansas City tenure ended on a low note, as his offsides call nullified a game-ending interception in January’s AFC championship game against the New England Patriots. So once again, Ford found himself in the crossfire of people ready to take aim at him for his play, with many pinning the loss on his shoulders despite the fact the defense as a whole choked by allowing the Patriots to convert three consecutive third-and-10s in the fateful overtime period.
But Ford is insistent he is using the criticism for motivation, just like he did before the 2016 season — the first time he delivered on his promise in the face of doubters.
“Man,” Ford said, “it’s gonna fuel me like none other.”
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