KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- As he moved about the Auburn campus as a senior in 2013, Dee Ford was destined to become part of the NFL's next wave of top pass-rushers. It just wasn't so easy for everyone to see at the time.
"People made fun about how quirky he was because he was so serious about things," said Rodney Garner, the Auburn assistant who was Ford's position coach as a senior. "He was walking around with a bottle of water around all the time. He was always staying after practice working on his pass rush. He was just so focused [with] a singular focus. He was very intentional about what he wanted. I used to tell him he had a multimillion-dollar dream but also the multimillion-dollar work ethic. So many guys have those dreams but they have a minimum-wage work ethic.
"He's serious about wanting to be good and then he goes about it. He wasn't a guy who just talked the talk. I use him as an example with my players even now."
It took some time for Ford, the Kansas City Chiefs' first-round pick in 2014, to develop, but it appears he's arrived. He leads the Chiefs with five sacks heading into Sunday's game against the Denver Broncos at Arrowhead Stadium. He leads NFL edge rushers in quarterback pressures with 37, according to Pro Football Focus.
All of this makes Ford the Chiefs' most valuable defensive player. The Chiefs rank toward the bottom of the NFL in both yards and points allowed, but things might be worse without Ford's consistent presence.
Ford played this well in the first half of the 2016 season, when he had 10 sacks in the first nine games. He was shut out the rest of that season after getting a hamstring injury and was limited to six games last year because of a back injury.
"Nothing is really different [this year] other than my health," Ford said. "The crazy part is I still have so much rust to knock off. I'm still trying to get into that groove where I can get better each week.
"You [don't] play this game ... to stay the same. You want to get better. But you can't do that if you're not healthy."
Ford might not be giving himself enough credit. His coaches and teammates said they see the results of his work -- he's developing other skills to go with his quick first step as a pass-rusher.
"He's become instead of just a guy that has a good first step, which he has [along with] great speed, he's become a real, legitimate rusher," defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. "He knows how to counter ... he understands pass sets and who he's playing against, how that player responds and what he does. That makes your job a lot easier if you can get all of that down. That's a whole process and belief that, 'This is going to pay off for me.'"
Linebacker Frank Zombo, who was with the Chiefs when Ford was drafted, said, "He's gotten a lot smarter. He knows what's coming before it happens, I think. He's always had that ability, that get-off. He's obviously becoming a smarter football player."
Ford said he's changed some technical items such as his steps and his hand placement, or as he said, "the little things that fans probably won't see but great players see."
Otherwise, Ford said his routine is the same.
"How can you get better at anything if you're switching it up constantly?" Ford said. "If you get a [negative] result, you go back to the drawing board and figure out what you did wrong, but you never change what you do. You make tweaks. But if you're changing what you do, you don't have faith in what you do and you'll never get better. You gradually get better each year when you continue to work on little things. Experience is the best teacher.
"Midseason toward the end of the year, that's when you want to be playing your best ball. I just want to stay locked in. The numbers sound good, but as a professional you know the small things you need to get better at."
His college position coach watches Ford now and sees the skills that made him a good player at Auburn and an eventual first-round draft pick. He said he also sees more.
"You can see that he's put a lot of work and time into his craft," Garner said. "You can see his game continuing to improve. He was really, really green with some of the basic techniques and the fundamentals when he was here. But he had the skills, so you knew once he got the fundamentals down he was going to be a really good player. He already had the work ethic and the discipline, so he was just going to continue to improve."