The 49ers finally landed a premier pass rusher off the edge. Let’s analyze and grade the trade with the Kansas City Chiefs for Dee Ford that was agreed to Tuesday evening.
49ers get: Dee Ford
Chiefs get: 2020 second-round draft choice
Contract: Five years, $87.5 million
No statistics were more emblematic of the 49ers’ defensive struggles in 2018 than setting NFL records for fewest takeaways (seven) and interceptions (two).
There were a few culprits at play here. First, quarterbacks too often were comfortable in the pocket and able to take advantage of San Francisco’s zone defense.
The Seahawks-style scheme employed by coordinator Robert Saleh doesn’t blitz often, making it imperative that the defensive line generate pressure with four pass rushers. But the 49ers didn’t pressure the quarterback enough, exposing a lackluster secondary that was banged up throughout the season, particularly at safety.
So in comes Ford, who led the NFL in creating turnover-worthy plays last season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, which accounts for forced fumbles and interceptions caused by quarterback pressure. Ford led the league in forced fumbles with seven and was seventh with 13 sacks. He was named to his first Pro Bowl while helping the Chiefs share the NFL lead with 52 sacks.
Ford was also Pro Football Focus’ highest-rated pass rusher off the edge. His 78 pressures were the most in the league — more than J.J. Watt (74), Brandon Graham (70), Khalil Mack (68), Michael Bennett (68), Myles Garrett (67), Danielle Hunter (67) and Cameron Jordan (66).
That’s an impressive list. Ford could wind up being one of the biggest additions of the offseason for any team if he can replicate that production next fall.
But there are question marks. Last season was easily Ford’s best. It’s probably no coincidence it came during a contract year. And it came a year removed from a back injury that required surgery and caused him to miss 10 games in 2017. Ford had just 5.5 sacks over his first two seasons as a bit player behind Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. There were rumblings in K.C. about Ford being a bust after being taken with the 23rd overall pick in the 2014 draft out of Auburn.
San Francisco gave Ford a contract at the top of the market despite having just two productive seasons (he logged 10 sacks in 2016, his first full year as a starter). The $87.5 million is probably what he would have gotten if he were allowed to test free agency rather than getting the franchise tag from the Chiefs. If the 49ers hold true to their pattern with big deals, it’s likely the guaranteed money comes in the first three years of the contract, though details haven’t come out.
The 49ers entered the week with $66 million in cap space and likely had some $52 million to work with after agreeing to a deal with inside linebacker Kwon Alexander earlier this week.
There’s been talk about Ford’s fit in San Francisco’s scheme. The Chiefs made him expendable because they’re switching from a 3-4 front to a 4-3 under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Ford, who’s listed at 6-foot-2 and 252 pounds, isn’t considered a good run defender, which Kansas City would argue makes him a bad fit for their defense. The Chiefs also saved $15 million in cap space by trading Ford, which they used toward safety Tyrann Mathieu, who signed for $42 million over three seasons.
The 49ers also run a 4-3, though it’s different from most. It’s a 4-3 scheme that lines up like a 3-4 in base downs, with five on the line of scrimmage and two inside linebackers off the ball. It’s unlikely Ford would be used in these packages as a “Leo” defensive end or “Sam” linebacker. The 49ers could still use Solomon Thomas, who is good against the run, and Malcolm Smith at those spots.
It’s more likely Ford takes snaps away from Cassius Marsh and Ronald Blair as pass rushing defensive ends when five or more defensive backs are on the field in sub packages, which is roughly 70 percent of the time. The 49ers don’t have “Leo” or “Sam” monikers for defensive ends in those groupings.
Adding Ford shouldn’t keep the 49ers from finding another edge rusher. It remains likely they target the position with their first-round pick in the NFL Draft, with Ohio State’s Nick Bosa and Kentucky’s Josh Allen as the favored candidates. That draft choice would likely play on the opposite side of Ford as an end in sub packages.
The 49ers’ defensive front could look like this on passing downs:
RDE: Nick Bosa (or Josh Allen)/Cassius Marsh
DT: DeForest Buckner/Sheldon Day
DT: Arik Armstead/Solomon Thomas
LDE: Dee Ford/Ronald Blair
That has the potential to be a premier pass-rushing foursome that could swing the team’s historic takeaway numbers in the other direction. As Nick Wagoner of ESPN noted, the 49ers lost 11 games by a single possession the past two seasons. Generating more sacks and turnovers could go a long way in the standings.
From that perspective, adding Ford for a 2020 second-round pick, which will likely be further down the board than the 49ers’ No. 36 selection, makes this a good deal for San Francisco.
We’d give it an ‘A’ if Ford had more than two productive seasons coming in — and if he didn’t undergo back surgery in 2017, which shouldn’t be overlooked.
Ford’s struggles against the run shouldn’t matter much. He should be used primarily in pass-rushing situations. The key will be allowing him to pin his ears back and use his speed off the edge, complementing Buckner and the team’s incoming draft pick on the other side.