Dee Ford fills big need for 49ers, who might not be done boosting pass rush

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- It was never a secret the San Francisco 49ers were ready and willing to throw resources -- be it cash, draft picks or a combination of the two -- at fixing what they view as the team's biggest weakness: an outside pass rush capable of closing out tight games.

In coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch two years in charge, the 49ers have lost a whopping 11 one-possession games. On multiple occasions, a sack that forced a fumble or a hurry that led to an interception might have been all that separated the Niners from victory.

On Tuesday, San Francisco made its most aggressive move yet to fix the problem. When the new league year begins Wednesday, the 49ers intend to send a 2020 second-round draft choice to the Kansas City Chiefs in exchange for edge rusher Dee Ford. The Niners are expected to sign Ford to a five-year, $87.5 million deal, according to a report by ESPN's Josina Anderson.

Assuming there are no snags, the 49ers finally have the dynamic edge rusher that has been missing since Aldon Smith departed in 2014. Looking back at Smith's all-too-brief time as a Niner is cause for disappointment now but was transformative at the time as he piled up 42 sacks in his first 43 games.

The Niners' hope is Ford can supercharge their defense in a similar fashion. While it took Ford a while to have a true breakout season, he did it in a big way in 2018. He finished with a career-best 13 sacks and tied for the league lead with seven forced fumbles last season and Pro Football Focus rated Ford as its top outside rusher, crediting him with 78 pressures.

For point of comparison, the 49ers forced seven turnovers all of last year, were tied for 22nd in sacks and didn't have an outside rusher with more than 5.5 sacks.

Of course, that doesn't mean Ford comes risk-free. While his 2018 season was a big one, it was also only the second time he'd posted more than four sacks in his five seasons with the Chiefs. In 2017, Ford played in six games because of a back issue that required surgery and he also played through injury issues in 2016.

The other question is where Ford will fit in San Francisco's defense. He has spent his entire NFL career in a 3-4 defense as an outside linebacker and a primary reason Kansas City reportedly wanted to trade him was because it was unsure how he'd fit in new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's 4-3 scheme, particularly against the run.

While San Francisco runs a different defense than Kansas City, it's fair to wonder how Ford will hold up against the run and whether the Niners envision the 252-pound Ford as more of a strongside linebacker or a "Leo" defensive end.

One way to help solve that and still maximize Ford is for the Niners to continue to invest in the outside pass rush. In fact, while a cursory glance at the trade for Ford might lead some to believe the team will put valuable draft resources elsewhere, it might actually be the setup to another big addition.

Armed with the No. 2 pick in April's draft, the Niners could still be in prime position to land another difference-making edge rusher such as Ohio State's Nick Bosa. At last month's NFL scouting combine, Lynch openly discussed the need for players who can close out games. He also pointed out the need for more powerful outside rushers to maximize new defensive line coach Kris Kocurek's wide-9 concepts.

"You have to have a guy who can close out games, close out halves," Lynch said. "When you have them, they can be a difference-maker. I think we're also looking for powerful players. ... They're going to be playing with a quick trigger and getting after it. But, those are guys that can get to the quarterback and finish him."

Adding Ford could also give the 49ers more flexibility in this year's draft. In theory, they could now be more open to trading back and stockpiling more premium picks. That can't be ruled out, especially if Bosa ends up going No. 1.

But given the time and effort it took to finally land one prominent edge rusher, there's plenty of reason to believe the Niners are poised to double down at the position Shanahan has compared to a quarterback on offense in terms of importance.

Bosa fits the description of the powerful type Lynch is seeking with Ford offering the speed from the other side that could give opposing offenses fits, particularly with dominant interior presence DeForest Buckner collapsing the pocket up the middle. It's a scenario that not long ago might have felt far-fetched but now seems entirely possible.