When the Kansas City Chiefs drafted pass-rusher Dee Ford with the 23rd overall pick of the 2014 NFL draft, there were a lot of analysts scratching their heads. With outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali already on the team, many believe that Ford would likely be a situational player for a year.
Furthermore, the Chiefs didn’t select again until the end of the third round and lost several players in free agency this offseason, which magnified the importance of finding an instant contributor with their first pick. It’s not even training camp yet, but it looks like the Chiefs will not only get an instant contributor, but they could also have a star on their hands.
Ford has drawn comparisons to Derrick Thomas and Von Miller—two players that had more than 10 sacks in their respective rookie seasons. The former is in the Hall of Fame, and the latter has become the go-to comparison for undersized edge rushers in today's NFL.
With comparisons like that, it’s worth wondering if Ford can be the next great NFL pass-rusher in Kansas City. Assuming the praise is not hyperbole, Ford has the necessary traits to be a very good player.
Highest of High Praise
“That guy is explosive,” said inside linebacker Joe Mays, via Rachel Santschi of Chiefs.com. “He’s quick off the ball. He kind of reminds me of Von Miller with the way that he gets off the ball and gets around the offensive linemen.”
“If anybody reminds you of Derrick Thomas, that kid should pretty much remind you of Derrick Thomas with his first step," Hali said, per Adam Teicher of ESPN. "He gets off the ball so fast it's scary. I just kept rewinding [the video] yesterday just looking at his first step. I don't know if he times it but his first step is incredible."
While Ford isn’t the first pass-rusher to be compared to Miller, it’s not often a respected player like Hali compares a rookie to a Hall of Famer. That’s high praise coming from anyone, but it is particularly noteworthy coming from a guy with 73.5 career sacks of his own.
Ford’s first step isn’t the only trait his teammates and coaches have praised. You can run the gamut of traits you want in a pass-rusher, and Ford seems to check every box.
“He’s a freak,” said Mays. “He knows how to work angles and uses his hands real well. He can bend and do all types of stuff you don’t see in the everyday pass rushers. Definitely ‘as-advertised’.”
Per Herbie Teope of Chiefs.com, head coach Andy Reid said Ford’s intangibles are “off the charts” and praised his ability to adjust to playing standing up in the Chiefs’ defensive scheme. Reid even noted that he’s picking up pass coverage, which would be his biggest barrier to significant playing time in 2014.
''He brings a lot of energy,'' Reid said. ''He loves playing the game.''
After the draft, general manager John Dorsey was very high on Ford. In an interview with SiriusXM NFL Radio, Dorsey told hosts Adam Schein and Gil Brandt how much he liked Ford as a person and a player.
“He’s got an incredible work ethic,” Dorsey said, via Schein’s Fox Sports column. “I thought he was the second-best pass rusher in the draft."
Ford is just nine minicamp practices into his career. That means he has yet to don pads or be stricken with the fear of an offensive lineman driving him into the ground. Expectations should probably be tempered right now, but the obvious question now regards just how favorably Ford compares with Miller and other great pass-rushers.
Ford hasn’t played a down in the NFL, but we can put some of the claims to the test. Mays called Ford a freak, and Hali praised his first step. NFL tape is not required to evaluate those two things.
The first claim is that Ford is a freak. Loosely interpreted, this means that he’s an extremely rare athlete that doesn't come around every year. Mays then compared Ford to Miller, so the easy way to test this claim is to look at their workout numbers. While these numbers don’t tell us how good Ford is at playing football, they do provide a test for the "freak" claim.
If Ford is nothing like Miller, then the comparison is bogus. Ford measured within one inch and two pounds of Miller, so they are roughly the same size. Ford has slightly shorter arms, but bigger hands. For the most part, they have about the same length when taking both arm length and hand size into account:
|Player||Height||Weight||Arm Length||Hand Size||40||Bench||Vertical||Broad||3-Cone||Short Shuttle|
|NFL.com, Dee Ford's pro day numbers via CBS Sports.|
Miller ran the 40-yard dash almost a full tenth of a second faster than Ford. This was determined by using the average of Ford’s two times at his pro day. These times usually run faster than the official combine times, so it’s actually being generous to Ford. A good example is Mack, who ran a 4.65 official time at the combine, but ran around a 4.53-second 40 at his pro day.
Miller was still almost four-tenths of a second faster in the three-cone drill and nearly seven-tenths faster in the short shuttle. In the vertical and broad jumps, Miller had an advantage of 1.5 inches and two inches, respectively. With the exception of bench press, Miller was faster and more explosive than Ford in just about every area.
There’s certainly something to be said for Ford’s 29 bench reps, which was six more than Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin and eight more than Miller and Jadeveon Clowney. This is funny, perhaps, because Ford’s strength was about the only other attribute that hasn’t been praised about Ford so far. Ford’s lack of flexibility was probably the most notable.
When comparing Ford to Miller, Clowney, Mack and Irvin, he’s just a tick below across the board, with the exception of his bench-press numbers. Irvin was drafted by Dorsey’s former colleague John Schneider and was a great combine performer, so that’s why he was included.
Irvin also serves as a reminder that workout numbers are flawed. Athleticism can help a player play football, but there is more to it than that. If we are comparing Ford against the freakiest of freak athletes like Miller, he just doesn’t compare. However, he’s certainly a very good athlete and probably still one of the better ones in the league.
If Ford is taking his athleticism and combining that with a great first step and multiple pass-rush moves, he has plenty of athleticism to be a star. A good example would be Jared Allen, who started his career with the Chiefs and has recorded 128.5 sacks in his illustrious career.
Allen isn’t a freak athlete from a measurables standpoint, but that hasn’t stopped him. If Ford’s first step is nearly as fast as Thomas' was, then he should have plenty of NFL success.
Unfortunately, we don’t have access to all the tape of Thomas blowing past offensive tackles, but we do have a few highlight clips. Rob Gill, the NFL Network producer for Derrick Thomas: A Football Life, described Thomas' amazing first step perfectly.
Gill said, via Reid Ferrin of Chiefs.com:
He had a sixth sense about it. It's in the film that (Neil) Smith switched his stance from putting his right hand down to putting his left hand down, so he could have an easy way of turning his head down the line of scrimmage, so he could watch Derrick Thomas, instead of watching the ball; he would go when Derrick went, instead of when the ball was snapped. It makes no sense, but that’s what he said he did, because he knew Derrick was going at that time. As he put it, 'Derrick would always be a step ahead of me'. It was incredible, how fast he got off the ball and got to the quarterback.
Ford has impressive highlights of his own. Ford dominated the Senior Bowl against other top prospects, and he did so again against Florida State in the national championship game. Hali isn’t totally off in his assessment of Ford’s first step—it’s fast.
It’s way too early to be comparing Ford to Thomas as an NFL player, but their blazing first steps are comparable. It will be interesting to see if Ford can convert that speed to power and bend around the edge like Miller. If his three-cone drill time is any indication, he may have some trouble bending around the edge. If his bench-press numbers are any indication, he shouldn’t have any trouble with power.
Ford’s blend of first-step speed and strength should enable him to have immediate success. Either Ford will blow through smaller athletic tackles that aren’t as strong, or he will be not be able to get past the bigger, stronger ones with slower feet.
Ford still needs to refine his technique just like any young player, but once he does, there is a good chance that he will be a very good pass-rusher. With some luck, Ford might even be the next great NFL pass-rusher.