49ers 2021 ‘Who is?’ series: Will Dee Ford play at all this season?

San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Dee Ford (55) Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Dee Ford (55) Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports /

The outlook for 49ers EDGE Dee Ford to see the field at any point in 2021 is slim, so anything beyond a mere appearance would be a massive boost.

The San Francisco 49ers are probably kicking themselves twice for their 2019 trade with the Kansas City Chiefs for EDGE Dee Ford.

A first kick would be the trade itself, sending off a second-round NFL Draft pick in exchange for Ford’s services. Then the second would be subsequently inking Ford to a five-year, $85 million contract just after the trade was finalized.

At the time, the move seemed like a steal from the Niners’ vantage point. After all, Ford was coming off a 2018 campaign with the Chiefs in which he boasted a career-high 13 sacks and led the league with seven forced fumbles en route to his first Pro Bowl nod.

Since then, however, Ford has been a notable disappointment.

Dee Ford Defense & Fumbles Table
5 yr5 yrKAN67416930.5137103343669
2 yr2 yrSFO122126.51711666

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
Generated 6/15/2021.

True, Ford’s 6.5 sacks in 2019 were a prime reason why San Francisco got to the Super Bowl that year. But considering he earned $14.6 million that season and played only 22 percent of the defensive snaps, it’s still hard to suggest the 49ers got their money’s worth.

Particularly after Ford, who already dealt with numerous injuries that year, suffered a season-ending back injury in 2020 that kept him out of all but one game.

Had Ford’s contract not been such a big obstacle, it’s likely the Niners would have moved on from him this offseason. But he had an injury guarantee worked into his deal, and the fact his back issues have carried over into 2021 meant San Francisco had to keep him regardless.

And while the 49ers were able to restructure his deal during the offseason, their bigger hope is for Ford to somehow return to the field in spite of the injury and once again pair with fellow EDGE Nick Bosa, potentially getting the Niners’ outside pass rush back to the level it was two years ago.


Why Dee Ford improves with 49ers in 2021

Ford has played a mere 272 regular-season snaps since joining San Francisco in 2019. Considering most top-level defenders can see over 1,000 snaps in a single year, it’s not hard to say Ford’s biggest area of improvement should merely be his availability.

Earlier this offseason, signs weren’t looking good he’d be out there. During OTAs, however, head coach Kyle Shanahan seemed optimistic Ford could potentially be ready by the regular season:

"[Ford] he made a lot of progress in the months that he was rehabbing here. We knew we weren’t going to put him through OTAs because we don’t want his back to act up. So I’m just keeping my fingers crossed and I’m hoping he can come ready to go in training camp and hopefully he can help us out this year."

Bosa’s presence means Ford doesn’t have to be the guy in the pass-rush department if he comes back. And the offseason addition of former Los Angeles Rams EDGE Samson Ebukam takes the pressure off Ford from pushing himself too hard, too.

Even if Ford sees a mere 25 percent of defensive snaps, perhaps even as a second-half addition in 2021, that would be a massive boost in his stock value to the team.

Why Dee Ford remains a 49ers trade bust through 2021

Without diving too deep into the medical aspects of things, back injuries are nothing to scoff at.

A myriad of injuries Ford suffered in 2019 was bad enough, but the fact his back kept him out of 2020 and put his 2021 campaign into serious doubt should say more than enough about the reality of him returning to the field anytime soon.

And while Shanahan’s comments are hopeful, they’re anything but guaranteeing Ford will be ready to go at any point during the regular season, let alone the start of training camp or Week 1.

Ford will have to return and post eight-plus sacks this season to even come close to justifying the 2019 trade and subsequent extension, and it certainly doesn’t appear that’ll be the case. It’s also more than fair to say Kansas City squarely won that trade in a big fashion, both by avoiding Ford’s subsequent injury problems and not having to pony up the cash to retain him when he was entering a contract year.

Both problems belong to the 49ers now.

Dee Ford’s outlook for 2021

If there’s a glimmer of hope, it’s looking like Ford won’t automatically be ruled out for the upcoming season, and even if he’s only marginally on the field, having a quality No. 2 pass-rusher is a luxury every NFL team will covet.

Still, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Ford placed on an injury list to begin the regular season, perhaps the physically unable-to-play (PUP) list to start the year, which would sideline him for at least the first six weeks of 2021.

As a midseason reinforcement, though, Ford could be a bonus. But the bigger questions remain.

The Niners are scheduled to pay Ford up to $8.9 million this season with $4 million guaranteed, meaning he’s not going anywhere in 2021. But if San Francisco waits until after June 1 of 2022 to cut him, though, it would save $7 million in cap space against a still-substantial $4.9 million next year and an additional $4.9 million in 2023.

Big numbers, yes. But it’s usually a better idea to cut bait with a player not taking the field and try to generate some positive savings rather than paying him a hefty contract while he’s unavailable.

It’s likely 2021 will mark the final year in which Ford dons a 49ers uniform. Even if he returns and is relatively healthy, the Niners aren’t soon to forget his injury history and will likely push to move on from him at the soonest, best opportunity.

Which is essentially a year from now.

Next. Ranking 49ers' 10 worst trades in franchise history. dark