In the aftermath of the Chiefs’ season-ending win over the San Diego Chargers, Dee Ford (— who was standing in front of his locker) was asked the most important thing he learned this season.
“Preparation,” Ford said, after giving the question some thought.
Upon hearing this, defensive end Kevin Vickerson, who was standing a few feet away, turned his head.
“Long season,” Vickerson said with a chuckle, causing Ford to nod.
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“It’s a sprint on gameday, but the season is a marathon,” Ford said. “It’s not going to change. What I really learned this year is my routine — just how to do it.”
Not that there wasn’t any trial and error.
“Definitely … I mean, come on,” Ford said. “But the biggest thing is you learn from it. Some guys aren’t intelligent enough to learn from it. It takes years. But I feel like I learned enough to get this thing rolling.”
You’re going to have to take his word for it. Ford, the No. 23 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, waited patiently this season, in which he served as the apprentice to fellow outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali.
Playing time was hard to come by. Ford, a 6-foot-2, 243-pound former Auburn standout, finished the season with only eight tackles and 1 1/2 sacks while playing roughly 9 percent of the Chiefs’ total defensive snaps.
But Chiefs coach Andy Reid was quick to point out Ford had to adjust from a 4-3 defensive end position, which Ford played at Auburn, to a 3-4 outside linebacker spot with the Chiefs.
“He didn’t have his hand on the ground, he wasn’t a rush end (like in college),” Reid said. “He had to learn a whole new position, which is a tough transfer going from college football to the NFL. He attacked that part of it. You saw him get better as the season went on.”
General manager John Dorsey remains optimistic that Ford, who had a half-sack in two of the last three games, eventually will pair the mental part of the game — his run recognition, for instance — with the unique physical traits that potentially make him a good pass rusher.
“You still see that great get off, and as you started to see him get more comfortable in that role, you saw him begin to develop a knack to put pressure on the quarterback,” Dorsey said. “I think it was beneficial for him to learn from two of the best in the business in Tamba and Justin. They were more than willing to show him different types of hand placements and the art of playing the outside linebacker position.”
Ford, for his part, certainly hasn’t been shy about praising his veteran mentors, adding that the chance to sit and learn from the best will benefit his career in the long run.
“I could have played this year and been a decent player — but we’re trying to be great,” Ford said. “That’s what they bring here, great linebackers. That’s why I didn’t play right away. I could have played and had about six or seven sacks, but that’s not the standard here. The standard is higher. So that’s what I’m working toward.”
Reid also believes Ford will be better for the experience.
“He had two great guys to learn from … he tried to absorb some of their information they were sharing with him,” Reid said. “He practices hard. Again, I think he has a bright future. He’s another one that will continue to get stronger this offseason, physically stronger and that will help him.
“(He has) great get off, great explosion. Explosive player, period.”
Ford will get an opportunity to show that next season, particularly if the Chiefs opt to create roughly $9 million in cap space by releasing the 31-year-old Hali, a valued veteran who turned in another strong season with 59 tackles, six sacks and a Pro Bowl berth despite a balky knee.
Regardless of what happens, Ford plans on hitting the weights hard this offseason. He expects 2015 to be a big season, one where he can finally show everybody what he can do.
“I’ll have some time I go enjoy myself, chill out, but other than that, I’ll be working,” Ford said. “Man, I just watched (Justin Houston) get the (club) sack record. You’re a fool if you don’t think I’m motivated.”