Why did the 49ers want to add pass rusher Dee Ford and linebacker Kwon Alexander this week? Coach Kyle Shanahan explained, simply:
“Speed and violence affect the quarterback and make people do stupid things before they want to,” the 49ers coach said at a news conference Thursday to introduce the team’s new highest-paid defenders. “Both of these guys have a lot of speed, and they both play very violent.”
Shanahan’s team broke two embarrassing NFL records last season. His defense forced just seven turnovers and two interceptions. Acquiring players who can pry the ball from opponents and force quarterbacks to do “stupid things” has been the focus of an offseason centered on upgrading the defense.
Shanahan and general manager John Lynch have vowed to be aggressive in adding talent to a team that is 10-22 the past two seasons. Getting Alexander and Ford were aggressive moves, evident by their contracts.
The 49ers traded a 2020 second-round pick for Ford, who was given the franchise tag by the Kansas City Chiefs. San Francisco signed him to a monster five-year, $87.5 million contract to make him the team’s second-highest paid player behind quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
Why such a steep investment? Because he can take the ball away.
“It’s not even really a intricate skill to have; it’s really just a mindset,” Ford said. “Most guys get to the quarterback, they just want to take them down. Just switch the mentality and swat the ball out. But you really have to work it. Because everything happens so fast, it needs to be muscle memory to go for the ball.”
The mindset worked for Ford during his career season in 2018. He led the NFL with seven forced fumbles and had 13 sacks. According to Next Gen Stats, Ford helped create more turnovers by forced fumbles and quarterback pressures leading to interceptions than any player in the league.
“As Kyle said, that first step is lethal,” Lynch said. “We think that can help our entire team get that virus going, where we’re taking away the ball on a regular basis.”
Ford’s exact role remains to be seen. It’s clear he’ll be used as a pass-rushing defensive end on throwing downs. But it’s uncertain if he’ll be used on rushing downs, which is notable given he’s far and away the team’s highest-paid defensive player.
It seems likely strong run defenders such as Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead will be on the field in early downs, allowing Ford to substitute for speed off the edge in throwing situations. The coaching staff hasn’t gotten too far into specifics in terms of Ford’s role with the first phase of the offseason program roughly a month away.
“My role is to go that way. Nothing else,” a grinning Ford said, pointing his arm forward.
Added Shanahan: “And ‘that way’ is towards the quarterback.”
Alexander on Monday agreed to a four-year, $54 million contract despite tearing his ACL in October. His $13.5 million average annual salary was the highest among all inside linebackers before fellow free agent C.J. Mosley signed for $17 million per season with the New York Jets. Alexander has six interceptions and forced fumbles over his career — more than any linebacker on the 49ers’ roster.
Shanahan noted he used to face Alexander twice a year as the offensive coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons in 2015 and 2016. He had bad memories of a loss to Tampa Bay in a 2016 opener, in which Alexander had 15 solo tackles on his way to an NFL-best 108 for the season.
“He taught me a hard lesson that you’d better game plan for him, because I didn’t too well the first game of 2016. We started out 0-1 because of it. I remember him having 20 tackles,” Shanahan said.
Alexander’s aggression on the field is matched by his aesthetic. His hair was dyed bright red with with small patches of dark blue Thursday. Tattoos run from behind his ears to his neck and down the sleeves of his arms. He capped his look with business-like glasses and a dazzling watch on his left wrist.
His first impression in the Bay Area indicated he’s a passionate player, matching what was said about him by his former general manager, Jason Licht, at the recent scouting combine, calling Alexander “the heartbeat of that defense.”
On joining the 49ers and why he fits, Alexander said: “They liked the person I am. They know I like to go get the ball. It’s contagious, so everybody sees me go get it, they’re going to want to go get it. As long as we’re building and we’re on the same page and the communication is right, we’re going to go get that.”