The 49ers have continued to invest in the counter attack to the quarterback position by adding impact players to the defensive line. When San Francisco traded for Dee Ford in March of 2019, the 49ers expected him to be a complement to their (hoped) rookie edge rusher, Nick Bosa.
He was, but not to the extent that Ford or the 49ers anticipated. Ford dealt with hamstring injuries and a chronic knee issue that dated back to his tenure with the Kansas City Chiefs. He missed San Francisco’s training camp last season after undergoing a platelet-rich plasma injection (PRP), which helped, but did not completely alleviate the issue. He admitted to reaggravating his knee in Week 2 and continued to deal with the effects of knee tendinitis throughout the season. Ford missed five games throughout 2019 and played just 226 snaps last season, the second-lowest mark of his career behind his rookie campaign in 2014 (122 defensive snaps).
But when on the field, he was effective. Ford amassed 6.5 sacks, six quarterback hits, 28 quarterback pressures, six tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in seven games last season.
When Ford was available, his counterpart also improved. Bosa registered two sacks in five games without Ford in the lineup. With Ford in the rotation, Bosa recorded seven sacks in 11 games. And when the duo were both on the field together, the entire defense saw an uptick in production. Take linebacker Kwon Alexander for example. According to ESPN staff writer Bill Barnwell, Ford, Bosa and Alexander combined for just 108 defensive snaps together in 2019. However opposing quarterbacks posted a total quarterback rating (QBR) of 3.0 of an achievable 158.3 when those three players were on the field together.
“I think the biggest hurdle to get over in the league is health,” Ford said. “We were spot on with the injury as far as diagnosing it in training camp. I had a severe case of tendinitis. Although it’s not an ACL tear, with my position, that’s a blown tire.”
Ford revealed he underwent offseason surgery that subsumed an “extensive clean up” to repair his knee. Well-known orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews, who specializes in knee injuries on numerous high-profile athletes, performed the surgery in Pensacola, Fla. shortly after Super Bowl LIV. Since, Ford has spent the offseason rehabbing in his home state of Alabama and feels to be in a better position to boost production in his second year in San Francisco.
“I’m confident moving forward, man, I feel great right now,” Ford admitted. “I’m able to actually explode off of this knee. Thinking back on it, I can’t believe I played a whole season on it. And we knew at the end of the day what we had to do had to be surgical. But I didn’t want to miss the season. We had too much going on. I didn’t want to miss that.”
Despite the procedure, Ford hasn’t put a timetable on his recovery just yet. As government regulations continue to prohibit the gathering of groups, the 49ers are still relying on distance learning to navigate the offseason program. The absence of live reps and in-person training have limited Ford’s ability to gauge his progress in his recovery.
“Anytime you deal with a chronic issue, you’re always on the clock,” he said. “If I’m able to play, I’m going to play. And as of right now, I’m just getting as healthy as I can. With everything that’s going on right now, it’s hard to measure what percentage (I’m at). I feel great right now. I know exactly what I felt like last year. Doing the things that I’m doing now is like night and day. So, we’ll just play it by ear once everything gets back going. We haven’t really had offseason. No one’s really been in competition. It’s just hard to measure exactly where you’re at. So, we’re going to take it one day at a time and just keep getting this thing as strong as I could possibly get it so we can sack some quarterbacks.”
Health will play a decisive factor in Ford’s role in 2020 with the departure of key members of the 49ers defensive line this offseason. He anticipates the surgery allowing him to return to his 2018 form, where the edge rusher appeared in all 16 games in Kansas City and set career highs across the board en route to his first Pro Bowl selection. As he approaches his seventh NFL season, the game continues to unfold for Ford. San Francisco could see an improved version of Ford in 2020, as long as his health allows it.
“Although I had those hiccups going on, I felt a lot more confident. I felt a lot more powerful. I felt a lot more explosive,” Ford said. “This is crazy to say going into Year 7, but (the game) does slow down even more, which is scarier for me. I was able to see a lot more. I was a lot more confident. I just wasn’t able to stay out on field. So, alleviating those problems definitely put me in an advantageous situation this year. I’m trying to rack up as many sacks and TFLs as I can to help our team get back to the Super Bowl.”