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Can 49ers’ pass rusher Dee Ford be a major factor this season?

After missing the majority of the 2020 season, Dee Ford looks to be a huge piece to the 49ers’ pass-rushing puzzle.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers Training Camp Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

After only playing in one game last season and having a mysterious neck injury that plagued Dee Ford, most fans presumed that the pass rusher would be on his way out from San Francisco.

Instead, through the first padded practice of training camp, Ford looks to have a major impact on the 49ers’ defensive line. The 49ers’ defensive line group will be guided by its mainstays in Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, and Javon Kinlaw, but if the group exceeds the level of play it had in 2019, it will need depth at the EDGE positions.

Free-agent addition Samson Ebukam will surely be a focal point of the pass rush from outside, but he’s never been a full-time edge rusher in his career. Jordan Willis was slated to be a depth piece but was hit with a PED suspension and will miss time early in the season. Arden Key and Anthony Zettel have been added to the group but haven’t proven to be reliable edge rushers thus far in their careers.

That being said, having a healthy Dee Ford added to the mix could be a huge boost for DeMeco Ryans’ unit. In 2019, the 49ers’ pressure rate went from 27 percent to 36 percent when Ford was on the field. In addition, Nick Bosa’s pass-rushing productivity jumped four points when Ford was rushing alongside him.

The key that unlocks Kris Kocurek’s wide-9 scheme has Ford’s speed off the edge — a facet that the 49ers’ pass rush really missed in 2020. If they can have some portion of that this season, it would be found money for the 49ers’ defense and would allow them to ease Bosa’s return from injury and not overload Ebukam as an edge rusher.

It looks like Ford’s athleticism was on full display during Tuesday’s padded practice, as he chased down Trey Lance to the sideline on a play during team drills, per The Athletic’s David Lombardi.

Sacramento Bee’s Chris Biderman also added that Ford had one sack and a few pressures during Tuesday’s session with the second unit.

It’s just training camp and the first padded practice of the season, but Ford seems to be displaying a level of athleticism that I didn’t think was possible 10 months ago when he suffered back and neck injuries.

It’s unknown whether or not Ford can stay healthy during the season, given his significant injury history. Still, if he can, then the 49ers’ pass-rushing unit looks drastically better on paper and will alleviate pressure off the rest of the defense.