ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — Dee Ford showed flashes of the first-round edge rusher the Chiefs hoped that were getting in the 2014 draft but there’s one time during his first four seasons he felt he pulled all his skills and talents together, a six-game stretch in 2016 when he picked up nine sacks.
“That was not a flash,” Ford said during the team’s minicamp on Monday, a prelude and warmup to full opening of camp on Thursday.
That’s the player Ford believes he was and will be again, now that a nagging hamstring injury that limited him two seasons ago and last year’s back injury are behind him.
“I’m thinking my third year for those first 10 games or so before I got hurt, everybody was like, ‘Yeah, that’s the guy we expected,'” Ford said. “Then I got hurt. I showed flashes before I got hurt last year. But in order to be great you have to be consistent, so I see that as in this is the time to put it all together.”
It’s now or never to a significant degree for Ford. The Chiefs picked up the fifth-year option of his rookie contract for $8.72 million last spring. His salary this season eclipses the entirety of his four-year rookie contract paying him $8.16 million in total.
The makes this a prove-it year for Ford, and right now he feels up to the challenge.
“I see it as an opportunity to bring everything together,” Ford said. “Everyone’s seen flashes of what I can do and this is the opportunity to really for 16 games. In order to be a great player you have to be consistent.”
To achieve that consistency, Ford is looking for inspiration from one of his idols growing up, linebacker Ray Lewis who receives induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame next month.
“I used to study Ray Lewis a lot, and his training told him a lot about where his body was,” Ford said. “I listened to him a whole lot.”
Chiefs outside linebacker coach Mike Smith served on the Baltimore Ravens staff when Lewis played, and now Ford gets to pull from Smith first-hand experience of how Lewis prepared himself for the season.
“What you see on the field, that’s not like he just wakes up one day and he’s naturally got it,” Ford said. “You build yourself to that. And those are some hard workouts. A lot of people can’t do them. You feel those gears kick in when you’re training. It’s like ‘Oh, yeah, I feel it.’ Then you take it on to the field, then you start to reap the benefits of that training.”
Ford feels like a different player than he was even two seasons ago when he felt things starting to click. The one thing his career lacks is consistency, and that’s now his primary goal entering the most pivotal season of his career.
“As you grow and mature, you understand in order to be great player you can’t just do it for 10 games, you have to do it for 16 games,” Ford said. “And then next year you’ve got to do it again for 16 games, for a 10-year stretch. That’s greatness, you see what I’m saying. Those are my personal expectations.”
The Chiefs plan to take it slow with Ford and not push his recovery. He did not participate in team drills during offseason practices, and may be limited during contact drills or other work early in camp.
“It’s going to be very frustrating, I said that today,” Ford said about the ramp-up to a full workload. “I told my coach that it’s going to be very frustrating because I feel good and once you get in the groove of things you don’t want to come out and you don’t want to stop.”
This isn’t the first time Ford has faced coming back from a back injury. He underwent his first back surgery during his junior at Auburn. He returned to pick up 21 sacks during his final two college seasons, including 14 1/2 as a medical-redshirt senior. That injury motivated him to return at a high level, and he hopes to do the same again.
“It happened to me in college when I had my first back surgery and I actually came back a different animal,” Ford said. “It’s definitely good motivation. I’m just excited to be back in full form. It’s been a long time since I felt normal.”
Matt Derrick is the lead beat writer for ChiefsDigest.com. Use the contact page to reach him or find him on Twitter: @MattDerrick.