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SANTA CLARA – Dee Ford is back practicing. As the lynchpin of a defensive line overhaul which hopes to catapult an underwhelming defensive unit into the upper echelon of NFL defenses, that’s no small note. Ford had been sidelined since the early part of training camp with knee tendinitis, something he said he’s dealt with every year.
On the same day the 49ers parted ways with another big-name, five-year contract signing in Malcolm Smith (played in 12 games, with five starts in two years after signing a five-year, $26.5 million deal with fourth- and fifth-year options in 2017), Ford participated in his second day back in practice (and first real day, with Monday a non-contact, abbreviated practice).
Head coach Kyle Shanahan talked about what he termed the “unfortunate time” of Smith’s tenure on Tuesday, and how it didn’t go according to expectations for either party. The 49ers are surely hoping Ford – who’s at the same 28-year-old mark as Smith was when he signed his deal – will be miles separated from the disappointment Smith was. With a $65.8 million price tag over the next five years ($20.5 million of which is guaranteed) and a greatly improved roster, the expectations will be exponentially higher.
Like Smith, however, the 49ers have outs in Ford’s deal. According to Over the Cap, while he’ll make $13.35 million plus $700,000 each game he’s on the roster (a likely $14.6 million sum) and next year’s $13.65 million salary becomes guaranteed by April 1 (plus likely bonuses that amount to $16.1 million), Ford only has $4.8 million in guaranteed signing bonus money split over the last three years of his deal. It’s the Paraag Marathe special.
But enough about how the 49ers can get out of Ford’s deal. That’s the worst case scenario; although it does feel natural to first go down the path of greatest disappointment when considering the 49ers’ recent injury history. It’s too early to tell how an overhauled medical staff will affect that outlook, but from Ford’s perspective, he and the team have taken a more intelligent approach than the one Ford has taken in the past.
Ford’s pain reached a new level this offseason.
“This past time it got to a point to where I was dysfunctional, and that’s a bad sign, so we really had to nip that in the bud, but it feels good now,” Ford said, although the pain’s not completely dissipated. “Never pain free. It’s the sport we play man.”
Ford said he’s currently “working out the kinks” with the tendinitis, trying to get back his strength in preparation for Week 1 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He’s confident that he’ll be able to take the issue and “put it to bed this year,” with that shift in approach also the cause behind the shift in outlook for what’s been a recurring problem throughout his career.
“We’re doing the right things and it’s hard in this sport because it’s week-to-week, literally day-to-day because practices are like games, so you need players out, you need them going,” Ford said. “So we never really spent the time in my past really trying to get the issue going and that was a little bit on my end. I like to play through things, I played through it last year, but now, we just don’t want it to be a hindrance so we can really get after the quarterback.”
He skipped the trip to Kansas City citing the need to not miss any days of treatment. Coming back to practice on Monday and Tuesday, Shanahan said the team poked fun at Ford, being his first days back in some time and looking “great,” as Shanahan said. That friendly heckling didn’t take Ford by surprise, though he said that wouldn’t happen after his teammates saw him play in Week 1.
The mental aspect of his game, at least, requires no rust removal.
Asked about the play against the Kansas City Chiefs when Solomon Thomas was forced to cover a running back on a wheel route (it ended in a touchdown pass), Ford described how his days as an outside linebacker helped him read defenses and make multiple check downs before the snap. Having that in his bag, he said he feels confident he knows how to defend plays when the offense tries to exploit a defensive lineman in coverage.
How confident? Confident enough that Ford says he’d lock down the Buccaneers’ Mike Evans in Week 1 if tasked to cover him.
“Yeah, I’ll lock him down. Nah, Mike’s a good dude,” Ford said, pausing. “But for real, I’ll lock him down.”