Sam Mellinger

Dee Ford has never been more needed, and never been more ready: ‘My ceiling is so high’

Four years later and Dee Ford still has an immediate reaction to the time Chiefs Chairman Clark Hunt compared him to Derrick Thomas.

“I hated that,” Ford said. “I hated that. I’m like, ‘Man, look here ...’ ”

Sitting in the locker room this week toward the end of an expansive conversation, the linebacker went into a story about Justin Houston and Tamba Hali and the weight of expectations. This has been Ford’s football existence, and while the NFL teaches guys to pretend it doesn’t exist, Ford is comfortable enough in who he is to talk about it.

The day after the Chiefs drafted Ford in the first round in 2014, Hunt said the physical abilities reminded him of Thomas, which was only slightly bigger than a veteran teammate comparing Ford to Von Miller.

Even now, two games into the season that will determine his wealth and future with the Chiefs, Ford shook his head at the descriptions.

“I want it to be real,” Ford said. “If you compare me to Derrick Thomas, I want it to be tape, not words.”

Comparisons to a Hall of Famer and perhaps the best player in franchise history aren’t the point. Ford’s handling of such expectations, and a crucial moment in his career and the Chiefs’ immediate prospects — that’s the point.

Right now, the Chiefs need him more than ever before. Their pass rush has so far been mostly ineffective, but Ford’s nine pressures as an edge rusher are tied for sixth in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.

“Sixth? Wow,” Ford said. “Good. Gotta get them sacks, though, baby. You know what I’m saying?”

That line is symbolic of where Ford is, both in his career and season. He seemed genuinely flattered, and a bit surprised, to learn of the ranking. As the conversation stretched toward a half-hour, it was obvious that Ford is persistently self-critical.

This is a crucial season for him. Houston is still a good player — and he was much better against the Steelers than the week before against the Chargers — but needs another capable pass rusher.

Using PFF’s grades, Ford is tied with Chris Jones as the team’s most effective pass rusher. Ford has a quarter of the team’s total pressures, on pace for a career year that’s perfectly timed with becoming an unrestricted free agent after the season.

Jones is the Chiefs’ best defensive player, Eric Berry the most respected, Houston the most accomplished, and Kendall Fuller the most consistent. Ford has the most potential for immediate growth, a piece that can help drag a bad defense closer to league average. This is the year Ford’s career goes one of two ways, in other words — and he knows it.

“It’s important,” he said. “My ceiling is so high. I have so much rust to knock off. Hella rust. I know what things should look like, and are going to look like. You don’t want to play your best ball in Week 1 through 5, so to play like this now, I’m optimistic.”

The rust is a reference to missing the last 10 games of 2017 because of a back injury. Chiefs coach Andy Reid credited Ford’s relative success with better health.

But there is more to it, of course. If it was just about health, Ford would’ve been more than a spot player as a rookie, and would not have needed three years to make a significant impact.

This is now Year 5, Ford’s audition for a second contract in its final chapter, and the team in desperate need for his best effort.

Ford’s career so far is something like a slow burn to this moment. He was drafted in a place to succeed — Houston and Hali were at or near their peaks, but also good enough teammates to help when asked. Ford came into the NFL as, basically, a gifted athlete. All speed rush, and even against Southeastern Conference competition at Auburn few blockers did enough to make him adjust.

He could work on hand placement, or a swipe-and-rip, but practice tackles and blocking dummies don’t replicate the real thing.

“That’s honestly why I wanted to play, just to get out there and (mess) it up,” he said. “Just play. At least then you know where you’re at. There’s value in mistakes. How do you know where to go if you never press play on that? How do you know how to work on your weaknesses?”

As an example, Ford brought up the Chargers game at Arrowhead his second year. They were playing a backup left tackle, but Ford was brilliant that day — three sacks, seven tackles, and smothering defense on the last play, a pass in the end zone.

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Ford called it “pretty much a flawless game,” in part because it felt like practice. He wasn’t thinking, and his strengths perfectly aligned with both the Chargers’ weaknesses and what they were trying to do.

The next week, against the Ravens, was completely different. A better pass-run mix, a better left tackle, and more awareness of Ford’s abilities.

“Conceptually, I had to understand a lot of things I didn’t know,” Ford said. “I was trying to recreate last week, but it was a different game. More learning curves. Now you have to learn how to rush differently.”

The first two weeks present a good example of Ford’s improvement, and where he can still grow.

His sack against the Chargers in the opener came with a combination of power, speed, and technique — knowing third down presented a sack opportunity, closing the guard quickly, shucking him to the left and rushing to the right.

His best snap of the season wasn’t a sack, but the time he beat the right tackle with an inside counter off a speed rush, powered off a double team from the guard, and chased down Philip Rivers from behind. Nothing else on that play mattered, because Ford wrecked it all.

Notably, Ford is now a guy you notice when he’s not on the field, too. Ben Roethlisberger is always most dangerous with time in the pocket, particularly on broken plays, and several of the moments that hurt the Chiefs in Sunday’s win at Pittsburgh — including the 26-yard touchdown thrown some 5 seconds after the snap — came with Ford on the sideline.

More than half the league’s quarterbacks are throwing within 2.5 seconds of the snap, so sometimes a sack is essentially impossible. The pass rusher’s goal then becomes to disrupt.

The evolving context and requirements of pass rushers is part of Ford’s adaptation to the NFL. He nerds out on old-school rushes by Thomas, Lawrence Taylor, Kevin Greene and John Randle. Ford sees them as generational talents, good enough to dominate any era, but what they did then would be largely out of place today.

Ford says he’s stronger and has more endurance than at any point in his career, but his real growth is mental. What used to be purely speed rushes, with the occasional inside counter, is now a fuller set of tools in the hands of a better carpenter.

Veteran pass rushers will tell you they don’t necessarily try to get to the quarterback on every snap. Often, a rush can be productive if it tests the lineman’s ability to block a particular move. Or if it sets something up for later. The blocker will always have an advantage in knowing the play, but a smart rusher can negate that with anticipation.

“You want to save some moves for late in the game,” Ford said. “This is pretty good information: Your moves are dictated by the situation. If I know they’re playing from behind, I’ll open up with more speed rushes, because I know he’s trying to hit routes. But starting out, you want to be more power, working at him, kind of mess with his mind. You save your best moves for the best situations.”

He is in a precarious place, then. The talent of a first-round pick remains, but the production of a big second contract has not yet come. This is his greatest opportunity — the Chiefs will give him opportunities, and two shootouts have produced 111 pass attempts by the opposing quarterback.

He’s been allowed to learn at his own pace, but the most important test of his professional career is now here. Other than Berry’s return, the space between Ford’s respectable production so far and the potential for stardom that he still possesses is the defense’s clearest path.

He has disrupted moments, but not yet game plans, and if you ask if he’s been good enough so far, his answer comes quick.

“I’m just being honest with you: no,” he said. “There’s a difference between being effective, and changing the game. I’ve been effective, but I want to change the game.”

Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger is a Kansas City Star sports columnist.

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