Former Auburn defensive end Dee Ford caused quite a stir at the combine when he said he was a better player than former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, potentially the top pick in the NFL Draft. Ford also called out Clowney on his technique, saying he played like a "blind dog in a meat market."
As an SEC football fan, I was already intrigued with Ford because of how fast I saw him get off the ball. Those quotes gave me even more motivation to break him down.
For the purposes of this breakdown I watched Ford play against Ole Miss, Arkansas, Alabama, Missouri and Florida State in the BCS National Championship Game. Those represented the fifth, ninth, 12th, 13th and 14th games of Ford's final season, respectively.
Stand up guy
In a 4-3 defense, the defensive ends are usually down in a three-point stance. That's one reason why 3-4 teams worry about drafting 4-3 ends as rush linebackers. Dee Ford, on the other hand, played in a 4-3 defense at Auburn and stood up a lot in the five games I watched.
He averaged being in a two-point stance about 16 times a game. He wasn't necessarily beasting out of a two-point stance and he only dropped into coverage a handful of times, but stand up he did. Still, any teams that run a 3-4 will have seen enough of him operating standing up that they should have a pretty accurate read on how well he can adapt to playing outside linebacker in their system.
Based on these five games, I'm not personally sold on Ford being a good fit as an outside linebacker in a 3-4. I saw Ford get overwhelmed too many times when an offensive tackle base blocked him. I know that Ford got 29 reps of 225 pounds at his pro day, but I don't see that kind of power in his game watching him play. In a six-technique (head up on the tight end), Ford repeatedly got pushed off the ball and reached by the right tackle when facing a combo block or cut off by the tight end when the run was away from him. He just didn't hold up all that well against the run from what I saw in those five games.
He also wasn't all that effective as a pass rusher in a two-point stance. (We'll get to his work as a pass rusher from a three-point stance in a minute.) In a two-point stance, he lost the explosive get-off that he generated out of a three-point stance and without that head start, so to speak, it was much harder for him to beat right tackles around the corner.
I'm sure some folks might disagree in my assessment because of Ford's athleticism and bench press numbers, if nothing else, and that's fine. After looking up Ford's measurements at the combine, I noticed that his arms are less than 33 inches long. For comparison's sake I will remind you that Clowney's arms are 34 1/2 inches long. To me, Ford's arms being relatively short explained a lot of why I didn't see him play as dominantly as I thought he would. That reconciled the gulf between what Ford did at his pro day and what I saw on film, so I am confident enough in my assessment that a differing opinion won't shake it.
I don't mind guys who have confidence in themselves; in fact, playing in the NFL demands it. Where it starts getting fuzzy for me is when one guy calls out another. Like, it's cool to say you're the best, but if you also say another guy is trash, well, that's almost sure to put you under the microscope.
Dee Ford did not play like a "blind dog in a meat market," but it's not like he had great technique either. I already mentioned how poorly he played at times in a six-technique, but really he wasn't much of a factor at all against the run. Most of the other defensive linemen I have broken down so far had a lot of tackles for a loss in their games. Ford had three.
One. Two. Three.
He got pushed around way too much for a guy who is as strong as his bench press numbers would suggest. Ford also got reached (tackle gains leverage on defensive end's outside shoulder, creating a running lane outside) a lot more than I am comfortable seeing from a possible first-round pick. Other times, he would just run around blocks assuming it was a pass, opening up running lanes inside. He did get good extension with his arms and locked his elbows when taking on blocks, but none of that matters if you are still giving ground.
You might think I'm hating right now because obviously "we all know" that Ford is going to be a pass rusher on the next level anyway. But the thing is, a team that is thinking of taking Ford in the first round is going to expect him to play more than just on third-and-long. Maybe not right away, but at some point in the very near future that team will want Ford to be a three-down type of player. That means his ability to play the run is important.
Besides, he has some work to do in the pass rush department as well.
Burn, baby, burn
There were two things that surprised me when I was done breaking down Dee Ford. First, I thought he would have attempted to turn the corner a lot more than 42 times in five games. Second, I definitely thought he would have won more than just 12 of those outside rushes.
I will give Ford credit for developing a nice level rush (sell a speed rush to the level of the quarterback, then push the offensive tackle by using his backward momentum against him and rip inside to make the sack) as a change-up to his speed rush. Of the seven sacks he had in those five games, two came off a level rush. He also had a pretty good simple inside rip move that he used effectively as well.
Still, for a guy who ran a 4.5-something at his pro day, Ford's technique wasn't quite good enough the majority of the time he tried to get around the corner. Sometimes, it appeared that he just didn't trust his speed and gave up on the corner too early. Other times, he did not use a rip to get the offensive tackle's hands off him which allowed the offensive tackle to push him by the quarterback. And then there was the fact that he didn't always get his hips turned toward the quarterback, hindering his ability to gain outside leverage on the offensive tackle.
Hell, on two of those seven sacks, the quarterback just ran into him. It's better to be lucky than good at times, but if you take away the sack he got when he was unblocked and the one he got off a quarterback scramble, that means only three of those seven sacks came when he beat an offensive lineman with a pass rush move.
I know that's deeper in the weeds than I normally get in these breakdowns, but it's the little things that separate Ford's success rate at turning the corner from a guy like Michael Sam, who's slower and still much more effective at getting around offensive tackles to the outside. Ford didn't have much in the way of a power rush either, also similar to Sam.
Even if I threw out everything else and just focused on Ford as a pass rusher, I didn't see the kind of game-changer who was so good that it was enough to take him in the first round. That's just me though.
Bring your hard hat
Between the two, Sam was a much better pass rusher in college than Ford in the five games I saw for each guy. It wasn't really even close.
But we aren't talking about college, we are talking about the NFL. As as far as NFL prospects, Ford does indeed have the edge there.
When you look at the kind of numbers Ford put up at his pro day, you focus more on what you can turn him into than what he was. No matter how much better Sam's technique gets, he will always be limited to a certain extent by his lack of speed. Most coaches think they can improve a guy's technique, so with Ford they'll see a guy they can fix, so to speak. For any shortcomings Ford had, he definitely hustled to the ball all the time, an athletic guy with some playmaking ability whose effort teams won't ever have to coach up. That's a helluva combination, one that most decision-makers are always on the lookout for.
Dee Ford thinks he is the top pass rusher in this draft. I don't agree with him, and that's OK. I just hope that deep down he knows how much work he has ahead of him to sharpen up his technique and increase his functional strength because he is far from a finished product his damn self.