Shortly after a recent practice, Dee Ford sat in front of his locker, listening to the laughter and yells of teammates nearby. Ford looked happy, comfortable even, while Justin Houston and others bantered around.
This was no coincidence. But it also should not be taken for granted.
Ford, the Chiefs’ first-round pick in May, is as confident as they come. Before the draft, he boasted that he was a better pass-rusher than Jadeveon Clowney, who went No. 1 overall to the Texans, and he meant every word of it.
Yet the 6-foot-2, 252-pound outside linebacker from Auburn has spent the majority of his rookie year on the bench, unable to usurp playing time from the Chiefs’ two Pro Bowl starters at his position, Tamba Hali and Justin Houston.
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This has created some problems for Ford, who has recorded three tackles and a half-sack in just 65 defensive snaps this year (the team has played well over 800).
He knows there are people complaining about his lack of production in comparison to other first-round picks — guys like Carolina’s mammoth receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who has caught 59 passes for 848 yards and nine touchdowns and was taken five spots after Ford (28th overall) in the draft.
But Ford, a competitor at heart, does his best to block out the criticism.
“I don’t care what people say — people aren’t here every day,” Ford said with a slight edge in his voice. “People don’t do what I do every day. I know what I’m hearing from my coaches, just being there for my team. I’m getting better.”
And Ford, who earned 15 defensive snaps (his most in a month) in the Chiefs’ 17-14 loss to the Cardinals on Sunday, insists the presence of Hali and Houston — his veteran mentors — are a big reason for that.
“You can ask them — I probably get on their nerves sometimes,” Ford said. “I’m always at those two, I’m always around them. They’re actual friends of mine. They’ve been beyond helpful.”
Ford also cites their guidance as a reason why he knows the best is yet to come, despite the hurdles he has to clear — like learning a new position after playing defensive end in college — in order to live up to his draft status.
Back at his locker, Ford — who was watching Houston jaw playfully with a teammate two stalls down — offered a story from this year as proof.
“There was one day I came in, and it was getting kind of late in the season,” Ford began. “It’s time to practice, and I just wasn’t going hard. I was half asleep; I was a little sick.
“But Tamba came up and told me, ‘Look: Whatever it is, I can promise if you go full-speed and just practice, you’re gonna feel great afterwards and you’re going to forget about whatever’s going on.”
So Ford did.
“And it was maybe my best practice of the year,” Ford said. “When I’m down, that’s when they kind of step in and get me right.”
When asked why he and Hali have taken an interest in helping Ford, a younger and cheaper player who happens to play the same position as them, Houston looked incredulous.
“What do you mean?” Houston chuckled. “The same reason why you help anybody else in life — because it’s the right thing to do.”
Houston, 25, would seem to be in position to be a Chief for a while, at least. With 16 sacks, he is in the midst of his best professional season — and right on time. His original four-year rookie deal expires after this season, and in the absence of a new deal, Houston would seem to be an obvious candidate for the Chiefs’ franchise tag, which would pay him at least $11.4 million in 2015.
Hali, however, is 31. He has been battling a knee injury all season, boasts a large 2015 cap number ($11.9 million) and has been less productive than Houston this year, with five sacks and 18 fewer hurries in roughly the same number of snaps.
Yet he’s continued to mentor Ford since the draft, which is a significant reason defensive coordinator Bob Sutton recently called Hali a “tremendous” teammate.
“A lot of it is just talking to him, explaining things to him,” Sutton said. “Tamba coaches him half the time when (Dee) is out on the scout team rushing. He’ll say, that’s a good rush, that’s a good (job).”
Sutton says this input is important for Ford’s development because he gets to see firsthand what winning looks like at his position.
“The most important thing is how they prepare,” Sutton said. “That’s how these guys get good, and that’s why they keep getting better, because they’re finding out things out about players and how to rush and (learning) about themselves. It’s a craft, and you have to be all the way into that. You just don’t show up and do this stuff.”
Sutton says Ford has also been a willing student — which isn’t always a given on this level, considering egos and the like.
“It’s very comfortable for him — he doesn’t feel like he’s getting lectured on it,” Sutton said. “They’re telling him, ‘Look at this, try this.’ ”
Ford admits he hasn’t been a perfect student. He has his own way of doing things, and sometimes he isn’t shy about trying them out — even if Hali and Houston suggest an alternative.
“I don’t listen to them until I go through it,” Ford said with a chuckle. “Then I come back and I’m like, ‘Oh.’ And they’ll be like, ‘I told you.’ It happens like that every time. I’ll come back to them, they’ll be like, ‘I told you.’”
Ford’s will, however, is also a strength. It’s the reason he racked up 20.5 sacks in college, and the reason he turned himself from a 205-pound freshman into a 240-pound pass-rushing menace as a senior. And if he becomes the player Chiefs general manager John Dorsey drafted him to be, his will will be a big reason for that, too.
For now, the Odenville, Ala., native’s respect for what Hali and Houston have achieved in their careers comes pouring out when he’s asked about his veteran mentors.
“I’m mature enough to humble myself,” Ford said. “This is a different level, and I respect what these men do. I can’t just come in off of pure talent and just do what they worked to do. Justin’s been working for a long time. Tamba’s a maniac, man.”
In other words, for all his competitiveness, he knows his role, shuts his mouth and tries to glean as much as he can from his mentors.
“For me to just come in and be like, ‘Man, y’all need to play me, sit them down’ … what’s that sound like?’” Ford said incredulously. “I’m willing to take the noise from outside because it doesn’t matter. I know what’s here.”
Coaches maintain that Ford’s growth has been slow but steady this season.
His regular spot duty as a situational pass rusher dried up after an embarrassing gaffe against San Francisco on Oct. 5, in which he misdiagnosed a play and ran away from a ballcarrier. But while Ford was essentially banished to the bench afterward — he appeared on defense in just two of the Chiefs’ next seven games — he did not pout.
Instead, he made the most of his time on special teams, which he was asked to play when tight end Demetrius Harris was lost for the season against Buffalo on Nov. 9.
Ford didn’t play special teams in college, but his blocking and enthusiasm on the Chiefs’ kick-return unit was noticeable, particularly against Denver on Nov. 30.
“Him and (Anthony) Sherman together are a pretty good tandem back there — they get us going,” special teams coach Dave Toub said. “He’s getting there. He’s gaining more confidence all the time; he’s making more plays for us.”
A week later — at Arizona on Sunday — Ford earned significant defensive snaps against the Cardinals but did not record a statistic.
Ford expects to make more of an impact as he gets more accustomed to playing as a stand-up 3-4 outside linebacker as opposed to 4-3 defensive end, which he played in college. The transition is complicated by the fact that most of the first-team practice reps go to Hali and Houston.
“First of all, you’ve got to know the basics of the philosophy,” Ford said. “Then ... there’s variations every week of what we do. So we might change some stuff up, and if you’re not actually repping it all the time, it’s not like it’s something you can recall. Like, I can’t say, ‘Oh, I did this in college.’ It’s just different.”
Ford acknowledges that he must improve his run recognition and ability to set the edge — it’s a mindset, he says— and also gain a comfort level in chaining his pass-rush moves together against NFL tackles. He also plans on gaining strength this offseason, though not at the cost of his athleticism.
“Certainly, he doesn’t want to lose any of his speed and quickness, which is one of his really top qualities,” Sutton said. “But strength is important, because that’s how you make it through the year.”
Physically, Ford says he’s not far from Houston and Hali’s level.
“Physically, I can go out and do it,” Ford said. “Mentally, that’s the block. And that’s what they’re helping me with.”
Houston is confident Ford will get there.
“He’s got two good guys in front of him, so he really hasn’t gotten an opportunity to show what he can do,” Houston said. “He’s just waiting his turn.”
And when he does, rest assured he will remember his rookie year, and the two veterans who showed him the way in an infrastructure that feels a lot like it did at Auburn. That’s a good thing, considering how Ford would like to grow as much as a player over the next five years in Kansas City as he did during the five years he spent in college.
“It’s a perfect fit,” Ford said. “Right now, I’m really enjoying it. This place reminds me of Auburn — it’s like family. I feel like an actual family of people have taken me in, including two of the best players in the league, man.
“I’m going to remember those two.”