Dee Ford's Rookie Impact
By Eric Paolini
Few teams could get after the quarterback better than the Kansas City Chiefs last season. As a unit, the defense took down opposing quarterbacks 47 times, tied with the Cardinals for the NFL’s sixth-best mark. The two best Chiefs at pressuring the quarterback were OLBs Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. Not much of a surprise, since each player had 11 sacks. They were far and away the leaders on the club. ILB Derrick Johnson and NT Dontari Poe tied for third with 4.5 sacks apiece.
The pass rush was most impactful early in the season when Kansas City was running through the mediocre and bottom-dwelling teams of the NFL. The peak was the first Chiefs-Raiders game when Kansas City’s defense overwhelmed Oakland’s offensive line for nine sacks.
The success of the pass rush makes Kansas City’s decision to use their first-round draft pick on another pass rusher, Dee Ford, surprising. With other holes on the roster and, with the Chiefs lacking a second-round pick, it was slightly confusing why Kansas City would select the Auburn defensive end. The 6-2, 252-pound Ford certainly doesn’t have the size to ever be a part of the conversation regarding replacing Tyson Jackson at defensive end in the 3-4 defense. Kansas City selected Ford with the full intention of converting him to an outside linebacker -- the exact same position Hali and Houston play.
Throughout college, Ford’s greatest asset was his speed and athleticism. Those attributes make him a perfect fit as a pass-rushing outside linebacker in the 3-4. While it was only a preseason game, Ford showed some of that speed and athleticism against the Cincinnati Bengals in the Chiefs’ exhibition opener on Aug. 7.
The problem is, the players in front of him are very good at doing that exact same thing. Hali has enjoyed double-digit sacks in three of the last four seasons and, while he isn’t the youngest guy on the team, he’s hardly close to retirement. The 30-year-old linebacker should have a lot more football in the tank. Houston is entering only his fourth professional season in a span during which he’s been a stud since being named a starter.
Perhaps Kansas City sees Ford as a replacement for either player. Hali is an expensive player whose contract expires after next season. The Chiefs may be able to use Ford as a lower-cost alternative and use the cap room elsewhere on the roster. Houston is due for a big pay day in the next year. While Kansas City letting Houston walk in free agency is nearly unthinkable, Ford could step in if the unthinkable happens.
But all of that is down-the-road stuff. Kansas City still has time to ink Houston to an extension before he sniffs free agency, which would allow Chiefs fans to immediately breathe a sigh of relief. And there’s nothing that says a team can’t improve its already good pass rush. Despite ranking third in overall team sacks – plus having the NFL’s sack leader – the St. Louis Rams added University of Pittsburgh DT Aaron Donald to their defensive line in the first round.
Ford could rotate with Houston and Hali and provide the defense with two constant pass-rushing threats. Ford still has to improve his defense against the run and ability to drop back in coverage. Although, against Cincinnati, Ford fared fairly well dropping back in the few opportunities he had to do so. Even so, his role will most likely be as a situational pass rusher this season.
By drafting Ford, the Chiefs’ pass rush will further improve. Following Houston’s absence last season, the pass rush faltered. Houston’s absence coincided with a more difficult schedule. Having another pass rusher could prevent those problems from occurring in 2014.
However, there are other parts of the Chiefs’ roster that may suffer. Shoring up a position of strength may have hurt other areas of the team. The secondary has a lot of question marks, the offensive line is unproven and the wide receiver corps weren’t upgraded in any significant measure.