Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers’ ‘X-Factor’ is DE Dee Ford

Rohan Chakravarthi
Aug 13, 2021 at 12:05 PM--

The 2019 49ers defense was nearly unstoppable.

The dominant force, led by rookie sensation Nick Bosa and the fearful pass rush, ranked second in defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA).

With that defense, the 49ers were able to reach the Super Bowl in the unconventional way of a team without a true star quarterback.

After an injury-riddled 2020, during which key contributors like Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Jaquiski Tartt and more missed a significant amount, the defense seems nearly back at full strength to start the 2021 season.

In the middle of it all is the 'X-Factor' for the 49ers: defensive end Dee Ford.

Now, that may seem like an obvious X-Factor, but the reasoning behind it stems from more than Ford being back on the field again.

After suiting up in only 11 games during the 2019 NFL season, Ford played in only one game last season, leading to speculation about his future on the team.

However, Ford looks like he's progressing in training camp, sharing optimism that the defensive end could play when the season starts on September 12th.

1. Availability

The most important part of Ford's return: he's finally healthy again.

Availability has been the key issue with Ford's tenure as a 49er since he was traded in the 2019 offseason from the Chiefs for a second-round pick.

He's only started two games as a 49er in the past two seasons after starting in all 16 games in 2018 with Kansas City.

Given that they traded a second-round pick, the value in return has not been provided in quantity, and the 49ers should hope that his health allows for him to be back out there amongst the rest of the defensive line at the beginning of games.

While he likely won't start to begin the season (Armstead and Bosa are the starting ends), he could progress into that starting role by continuing to prove he's healthy and can sustain the impact of those hits from offensive lineman.

John Lynch went onto KNBR's Mac and Murph show earlier this morning and during the interview, the general manager discussed Ford's return and expressed how excited he was for this team's defensive front, even comparing it to the outstanding 2019 49ers team.

"We've been very encouraged. He's been out there. We're trying to be very judicious on how we bring him back. But he's been super impactful when he's been out there, and that's always been the case with Dee, so we've just got to get him there," Lynch said.

Still, despite the positive reviews and encouragement, Lynch stressed the importance of being active and healthy consistently as the major goal for the defensive end.

"But [Dee Ford's] also got to train his body so he can go compete in a consistent manner and show up every week. Man, if he can do that, I'm really feeling, like 2019, in terms of this D-line … we think we're going to be a force at that position. We've got to go do it but it's starting to feel like 2019 where the mindset is going to be overwhelming quarterbacks, and that's the great equalizer in a league that's so set up for passing."

Well, since Lynch brought up the mindset of overwhelming quarterbacks, let's take a look at those 2019 stats and really see how effective the 49ers were with Ford on the field.

2. 2019 Stats

Many forget, but when Ford was on the field in 2019, the unit was almost unstoppable.

Well, yes, they were all season, but with Ford in the lineup, they were at their best that season.

Through the first six weeks of the 2019 NFL season, Bosa and Ford were ranked first and second, respectively, in pass rushing productivity at 14.3 and 11.8, despite Ford not even being a regular starter.

During that time, Ford participated in 89 pass-rush snaps and created 17 pressures in that limited time, which was an astounding 19% of snaps, and created two forced fumbles.

Remember, Ford led the league in 2018 with seven forced fumbles, so his knack to knock the ball loose is not just a fluke.

In addition, the 49ers as a whole ranked second in combined opposing passer rating during that time with a 62.5, trailing only the New England Patriots.

Looking specifically at the 108 snaps on which Ford, linebacker Kwon Alexander, and Bosa played together, opposing quarterbacks posted a QBR rating of 3.0 on a scale of 0 to 100, proving how effective Ford was as a pass-rusher.

Despite playing in only eleven games and starting in only two, Ford accumulated seven sacks and a very respectable 84.4 PFF grade in 2019.

While the two statistics don't necessarily hold a large amount of value, they only support how effective Ford was as a player for the 49ers during that 2019 season.

Even if Ford returns as a shell of his former self, he could prove to be an extremely valuable player to the team with implications that stem past just his own presence.

3. The Implications

Perhaps the most important parts of Ford's return are the implications that affect the rest of the team.

With Ford's return, the team could potentially slide Arik Armstead to his more natural position of an interior defensive line.

Remember, when Ford played in 2019, the 49ers deployed a powerful lineup of Ford and Bosa on the edges with Armstead and All-Pro DeForest Buckner on the interior, which led the team to 3.2 sacks per game, good for third in the NFL.

Last year, with Bosa, Ford, and defensive end Solomon Thomas all out for a significant portion of the season, Armstead struggled and failed to replicate the ten-sack season in 2019 that netted him his five-year, $85 million deal that offseason.

Why did Armstead perform in 2019? Well, his game style was better suited for interior offensive linemen, as offensive tackles tend to be more agile and quick, countering the defensive lineman's moves.

In addition, Armstead could work off of the success of his teammates along the defensive line as more attention towards the other stars gave him more favorable matchups.

While Nick Bosa will certainly open up the game for Armstead, having him slot back to the interior defensive line with a certified pass-rusher on the edge in Ford would make every player on that defensive line more comfortable.

Also, the return of Dee Ford to the edge should significantly help second-year defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw as he acclimates to the NFL game.

Kinlaw didn't have a normal training camp last season and wasn't as effective as a rookie, but with a full offseason and better surrounding players, the South Carolina product is primed for a breakout season.

If Ford can be a regular presence on the defensive front, the 49ers should also be in a better shape for the season because there will be more fresh legs, decreasing the chance of injuries.

To sum it up, Ford coming back would mean wonders for the 49ers as they look to chase a playoff spot and more this season.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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