After trading a second-round pick to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Niners signed Ford to an $85 million deal with the belief he would be a franchise centerpiece for years to come.
Now, those expectations are gone, buried under a pile of injury-driven stops and starts. The debilitating and often confusing back injury that cost Ford 15 games last season seems to have dissipated.
Ford is back on the practice field, participating in just about everything, though he's been limited in team drills. In fact, Ford and the Niners are viewing any sort of contribution from Ford this season as found money.
"This is where I hoped he'd be," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "It's been some time. We've taken a year off and he's been here since the season ended. I think he left in June or half of July, but before that, he had been here about five months, really working to get to this point. So, I had an idea he would be like this. I'm just hoping it continues."
Hope is the magic word for Ford as the season approaches. Hope he can continue practicing without issue. Hope he can knock off whatever rust has built up since he played his last game on Sept. 13, 2020. Hope he can find a way to get to the season feeling good and, more important, stay that way.
While hope isn't a sure thing, it sure beats the alternative. In the spring, Shanahan described Ford's injury as a "moving target," which is why it had been called a neck issue, a lower-back problem and an upper-spine injury at various points during the process.
According to Ford, the initial thought was a herniated L5 disk, but they couldn't pin that down. Which led to a variety of issues that popped up in the upper spine and then created issues down lower when his body would try to overcompensate. Ford now describes the injury as "a little bit of everything."
The uncertainty surrounding the injury made for a complicated recovery. Ford is no stranger to back injuries, having had a pair of operations in the past, but this one was different. Ford said he and his team of doctors and trainers centered all workouts on stability and mobility. That entailed lengthy periods of core work and stretching. Any new issue that popped up was be handled as it came.
Through that time, Ford never wavered in his desire to return. Despite online speculation that he might retire, Ford never considered it.
"Hell no," Ford said. "No. I put in too much work. I haven't put my best ball on tape yet, so: This is my life. This is what I do."
The mental side of Ford's recovery was a bit more challenging. When the team moved to Arizona for the season's final month, Ford went along, clinging to hope that he'd be able to return for a stretch run. The initial 4-to-5-week diagnoses soon turned to 10 weeks, then 15.
Isolated in the team hotel and dealing with a back injury, Ford leaned on family and friends to help keep his spirits up. He also spent time playing his beloved guitar and writing in his journal. He even flipped back through the pages of previous journals as a reminder of how he handled earlier back problems.
All of it helped Ford get to where he is now. He spent most of the offseason in the Bay Area, working daily with the training staff and doing all he can to strengthen his back. He and the Niners agreed to a reworked contract that saved the team about $11 million in cap space in March with an eye toward keeping him out of the offseason program and getting him ready for training camp.
With defensive end Nick Bosa also on his way back from a torn ACL and the addition of edge rusher Samson Ebukam, a Ford return, even if for 15 to 20 snaps a game, would go a long way in helping the Niners' high-priced defensive line get back to the dominant form it held in 2019.
San Francisco dipped from fifth in the NFL in sacks in 2019 (48) to 22nd last year (30), with Bosa and Ford combining for zero sacks while appearing in about nine total quarters.
"Dee has proven throughout his career that he can get to the quarterback," defensive line coach Kris Kocurek said. "So, if he's in uniform that first game, it's a big shot in the arm."
Ford says he won't feel like he's had a true breakthrough until he is bringing down quarterbacks. And though he's encouraged by his progress, he gets constant reminders from Kocurek that yesterday is over, tomorrow isn't promised and all he has is the day in front of him.
"My expectation is to be a little bit better than I was the day before," Ford said. "That's all I can do."