49ers training camp: Dee Ford showing he can be key X-factor

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 /

Despite early speculation he’d miss all of 2021, 49ers EDGE Dee Ford is back and seems to be making a serious impact in training camp, which is very good.

Imagine saying this three or four months ago: San Francisco 49ers EDGE Dee Ford will be one of the team’s top defensive standouts in training camp.

Ford, who appeared in just 11 games and 22 percent of defensive snaps in 2019 before missing all but one game in 2020, thanks to a serious back injury, wasn’t projected to even see the field for the beginning of 2021 in light of what looked to be a lengthy recovery that was endangering his football career.

Not long ago, getting even a handful of games out of the 30-year-old Ford this season would have been a blessing.

He’s back now, though.

In what must be a revelation for Niners defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, Ford being back on the field and fully participating in full 11-on-11 drills is welcomed news to a pass rush that, without Ford, would have been questionable at best.

With Ford, however, San Francisco’s pass rush could look much like what it did during the team’s run up to the Super Bowl in 2019.

Ryans is still being cautiously optimistic with Ford, saying the following in a post-camp presser:

"I thought Dee, he performed really well for the few reps that he’s gotten. And Dee is still on an approach where we’re taking it day by day. He’s getting a little bit, you know, every day, but Dee is in a good spot and he’s getting better and better each day."

But considering Ford was originally going to be tabbed as taking up a spot on the physically unable-to-play list at this point, it’s nearly amazing the pass-rusher is back out there on the field.

Why Dee Ford could be 49ers pass-rushing X-factor

It would be nice if the 49ers were getting similarly good news with fellow EDGE Nick Bosa, whose ACL tear back in Week 2 last season has resulted in a recovery that’s stretched into training camp.

Bosa has yet to partake in full-team drills, and he’s regularly been held out of practices with “maintenance days,” as Ryans pointed out during the same press conference.

Trading Bosa for Ford on the field obviously isn’t what the Niners want, and it would essentially create the same default situation they would have had anyway if Ford was unavailable but Bosa was: a questionable pass rush with only one legitimate option off the edge.

Yet San Francisco has the right to be cautious with Bosa for now, emphasizing health and recovery over practice reps.

Still, Ford’s return in tandem with Bosa being back winds up being the missing link to help return the 49ers pass rush back to its former greatness.

49ers pass-rushing depth is infinitely better with Dee Ford

True, Ford has been something of a disappointment over his two-plus years with the Niners, and it is a big part of why San Francisco renegotiated his contract down to effectively a two-year deal with an easier out in 2022 after June 1.

Read More: Dee Ford restructure nets 49ers $11 million in cap space

Having Ford back on the field, however, does two things. First, it allows the 49ers to put defensive end Arik Armstead into more of an inside pass-rushing role, which was his strength during his 10-sack 2019 campaign. Second, it alleviates pressure on fellow EDGE Samson Ebukam, who has never had more than 4.5 sacks in a single season, from trying to assume a role he’s never truly had before joining the Niners this offseason.

As long as Bosa is back, too, of course.

A healthy tandem of Bosa and Ford keeps Armstead on the inside, while allowing both Ebukam and likely defensive end Arden Key to assume rotational depth roles only — spots on the roster where their respective impacts could be better utilized.

Last season, when both Ford and Bosa were out, San Francisco’s pass-rushing depth was tested to the extreme, and players like Jordan Willis and now-Seattle Seahawks EDGE Kerry Hyder were forced to pick up the slack.

If Ford is back and healthy, the 49ers pass rush might look a lot like it did two years ago instead of the 2020 edition.

Next. 5 burning questions facing DeMeco Ryans, 49ers defense. dark