KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) Dee Ford was a bust, a laughingstock in Kansas City, the punchline to jokes that usually referenced broken-down pickup trucks and ended up with them never getting where they were supposed to go.
That was last year. Things have changed this year.
Now, the 2014 first-round pick is among the league leader in sacks, the emerging star for a defense that has pushed the Chiefs into AFC West contention, and he's the one having all the laughs.
''That's human nature for athletes: The more you play, if you work hard, you get better at things the second time you do it and the third time you do it,'' Ford said. ''But every player doesn't get better every game, but hard workers do. It's a testament to that.''
The Chiefs were roundly criticized for drafting Ford with the 23rd overall pick two years ago, when he was rated a second- or third-round talent by many. The Chiefs already had Justin Houston and Tamba Hali at outside linebacker and many other needs on a team in the midst of a rebuild.
Those critics only grew louder when Ford rarely got on the field as a rookie.
But when Houston got hurt late last season, Ford was pressed into the starting lineup. He responded with three sacks in a game against Oakland and another in the regular-season finale against San Diego, then helped Kansas City win its first playoff game in more than 20 years.
That first-round pick nobody seemed to want? He's been crucial to a 6-2 start.
That's because Houston wound up needing surgery in February for a malfunctioning ACL, and he isn't expected back for at least a few more weeks. Ford has been starting in his place, providing the only real pass rush for a defense that has been carrying Kansas City most of the season.
''He's been playing hard. He's giving you good, hard snaps,'' Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. ''It's a tribute to him. He's taken a lot of heat, so it's good for him to get a little bit of taste of this.''
Ford has had at least a partial sack in five of the Chiefs' first eight games, including a 3 1/2-sack performance on Oct. 30 in Indianapolis. He also had the Chiefs' only two sacks in a 19-14 win over Jacksonville on Sunday, and nearly had a third when Blake Bortles managed to throw the ball away.
His fourth career multi-sack game gave him nine sacks on the season. That's only a half-sack off Von Miller's league lead and was tied with Buffalo's Lorenzo Alexander heading into the Bills' game Monday night.
''There's no way in our league that you can be an effective rusher unless you're just relentless. It just can't be done,'' Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. ''He has such great speed that if a quarterback does step up or does step out, even if it's away from him, he can track them down. You have to be relentless within the play, and then, relentless within the game.''
One reason for his success rushing the quarterback is his vast improvement in other areas. He was rarely asked to drop into pass coverage at Auburn, and he struggled to set the edge against the running game when he made it to the NFL. But shoring up those areas has made him a more complete player.
As a result, Ford stays on the field more and has more opportunities to get after the quarterback.
''A year ago I think he started to become a better overall player - the run game, pass coverage, all that,'' Sutton said. ''Then, I think this year, he's kept that thing going and made some really big plays for us in the pass game. Now, I think he's taking his pass rush game and he's improved that.''
NOTES: Reid said QB Alex Smith will start Sunday at Carolina. Nick Foles replaced him against Jacksonville after Smith sustained a head injury against Indianapolis. ... RB Spencer Ware could be ready to face Carolina if he passes the league's concussion protocol, Reid said. Ware was inactive Sunday. ... There is an outside chance Houston (knee surgery) will play this week. He will be added to the roster by the deadline Wednesday, unless he experiences a setback.
For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL