Dee Ford, a first-round pick, a national champion in college (winning the title at Auburn along with Cam Newton), a two-time SEC champion, the MVP of the Senior Bowl in 2014, and a guy who had 18 sacks his senior year of high school.
Now, the key to the Kansas City Chiefs’ defense.
That’s not to say he’s the best player. There are plenty of others, like corner Marcus Peters, safety Eric Berry, and inside linebacker Derrick Johnson.
But Ford is the key, because he has to step in and replace Justin Houston. The premier pass rusher, with his $101M salary, four Pro Bowl Selections, and 56 career sacks, is on the physically unable to perform list (PUP list). He’s coming back from an ACL injury – not quite a tear, but close – and he has to miss the first six weeks of 2016 because the Chiefs put him on that list.
Initially, there was speculation that he might make it back to start the year, if things went absolutely as fast as possible. At worst, he’d miss 12 months and the whole season. It appears for the time being that he’ll fall somewhere right in the middle of that.
Houston, in many ways, is the reason this defense is so good. They’re able to generate pressure up front, making life far easier on the secondary. He commands attention coming off of the edge, which makes it easier for other players to produce. He’s one of those players you simply have to game-plan around.
For six weeks, Ford has to replicate that play. No, he won’t likely be as good. But he needs to be a threat on the edge.
Without it, it’s easier for teams to block everyone, buying time in the passing game and freeing up blockers when running the ball. With more time, life gets much harder for Peters, Berry, and company in the secondary. It’s all a trickle-down effect.
Much of the reason the Chiefs didn’t beat the Patriots in the playoffs was that they never sacked QB Tom Brady, which was with an injured Houston. If production falls with Ford, they could see the same problems.
On the other hand, if Ford excels, this team can pick up right where it left off. The offense should only be better with Jamaal Charles back. Jeremy Maclin will have a second year in this system. Alex Smith should be as smart and consistent as always. The Chiefs’ offense is a known quantity, and it’s good enough to win.
The questions are all on defense.
It’s especially necessary for Ford to produce considering that the defense has likely regressed. They’ve lost corner Sean Smith, for example, and now have a trio of rookie draft picks and Phillip Gaines, who tore his ACL last year. They still have Berry, but he’s on the franchise tag and may not be happy with the front office because of it. They saw Mike DeVito retire. On Friday, they traded CB Marcus Cooper to the Cardinals for a future draft pick.
Losing Houston for six weeks seems like just another blow, and one has to wonder how many a team can withstand. If Ford can step up and get it done, though, he can erase that question, and the pressure he generates up front can help cover up some of the team’s other issues.
So, can he do it? Perhaps. He did not live up to his billing as a rookie. Coming off of that Senior Bowl MVP and a first-round selection, he had 1.5 sacks. He never started a game. Granted, the Chiefs were deep, but he didn’t make a splash.
Last year, he made nice progress. He still didn’t look like a dominant pass rusher, by any means, but he did get five starts in 14 games, and he put up four sacks.
The Chiefs need more out of him, but that’s good progression. This year, he needs to step up, keep that progression heading in the right direction, and show exactly why they took him in the first round. For the first month and a half, the defensive performance may depend on it.