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Why a healthy Dee Ford is one of 49ers' most important players

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The battles between defensive end Nick Bosa and left tackle Trent Williams might have stolen most of the headlines in San Francisco 49ers training camp. But there was another matchup on the other side that was every bit as important.

Call it a double main event: Bosa vs. Williams on one side, Dee Ford and Mike McGlinchey on the other. Bosa's power, Williams' athleticism and McGlinchey's technical skills were all on display, but of critical importance was that Ford looked as healthy and as fast as he had at any point since arriving in San Francisco last offseason.

Of the players the 49ers can ill afford to lose and must produce at a high level for them to reach a second consecutive Super Bowl, Ford might not come to mind first. He shouldn't be far down the list, though. In the regular season, the 49ers had 24 sacks on 164 snaps when Bosa and Ford were on the field together. They had 24 sacks on 801 snaps on all other plays.

"He's got that shot-out-of-a-cannon type of get-off from the line of scrimmage which really presents problems for offensive tackles and makes you get on your heels a little bit," McGlinchey said. "His speed kind of unlocks the rest of the pass rush. ... Having a guy with that kind of get-off that can create that kind of spacing for the other three or four or five guys that they have rushing is a huge, huge part of what we do on defense. The success that we had on third downs, if it gets to third-and-plus-5, it gets really hard to keep those guys off the quarterback and it's an extremely rare thing that we have here."

In March 2019, San Francisco sent a 2020 second-round pick to the Kansas City Chiefs for Ford, and the Niners signed him to a five-year, $85 million contract. The 49ers had visions of pairing Ford's speed with soon-to-be-drafted Bosa's power to ignite a dominant edge rush. And when Ford was on the field last season, the idea manifested consistently. Including the playoffs, Ford finished with 7.5 sacks, 18 tackles, two forced fumbles and 23 quarterback pressures.

Problem was, Ford wasn't on the field as much as you'd hope for a player with a $14.6 million salary-cap charge. Persistent knee tendinitis early in the season and a hamstring issue later in the year limited Ford to 14 games (including playoffs) and he only had spot duty in those games, averaging 21.9 snaps per game, most of which came in obvious passing situations.

Suffice to say, Ford's first year in San Francisco offered little opportunity to show why the team coveted him.

"At moments, [I did]," Ford said. "But not consistently. Not to my level, no. Not to my expectations, no. ... You saw glimpses of me, but not to that full throttle."

After Dr. James Andrews performed an extensive surgery to clean up Ford's knee in the offseason, he arrived at training camp feeling closer to his old self. That was evident in the spring when coach Kyle Shanahan said he could tell by Ford's "aura" and how he spoke he was feeling much better. That could be seen when camp began, too, as Shanahan said, unlike last year, there were no restrictions on Ford.

Any remaining doubt dissipated as Ford and McGlinchey traded victories in pass-rush drills and team periods during the first handful of practices. A calf issue slowed Ford about midway through camp but the Niners didn't seem too concerned about Ford's status and expect to have him for Week 1.

"When he got here, you could tell he was different," Shanahan said. "He was a lot more confident in his knee. You could feel it from him."

The question now is whether Ford can stay healthy and make opposing quarterbacks feel him. The pass rush is at the center of everything San Francisco hopes to do defensively. In the offseason, the Niners traded away defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, a second-team All Pro, whose absence has many expecting a defensive regression. Although Buckner and Ford play different positions, an obvious way to replace some of Buckner's production would be to have a healthy Ford screaming off the edge all season.

"Whether Buck was here or not, Dee Ford was a big, big part of what we did a year ago and having him for a full season is very important," defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. "Losing Buck is a big deal. We all love Buck and not just the football player, but all the things that he did off the field, as well as the leadership he provided."

One of the quickest ways for NFL teams to fall short of expectation is getting low production from highly paid players. The margin for error dwindles with every big-money contract, meaning players who make the most must play their best. The 2019 Los Angeles Rams can attest to that. For the 49ers, with so many key players set to be free agents and an expected decline in the salary cap next year, Ford must produce. He is set to count almost $16 million against this year's cap and $17.6 million against next year's, which means he could be a salary-cap casualty in the offseason if he can't return close to the 13-sack form he had in 2018.

"Every year is a big year for me because we can't play this game forever," Ford said. "I'm really trying to leave my legacy. ... It's just about showing up every play, every down, every game, that's my goal."