Rejoice, 49ers fans, for football is almost here. We are five days away from the start of training camp, scheduled to begin Thursday, July 26, marking the beginning of a six-month-plus marathon that spans the NFL season. KNBR is counting down the days by highlighting San Francisco’s most important players, from No. 14 to No. 1, accompanied by coach bios for each day preceding camp.
Let’s highlight linebacker Reuben Foster, our fifth-most important 49ers player in the upcoming season.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Reuben Foster
Foster endured three-and-a-half months of uncertainty this offseason surrounding a domestic violence and weapons charge that implicated prison time if the charges were proven true. The incidents took place one month after Foster, who tested positive for a diluted sample at the 2017 NFL Combine, was arrested for marijuana possession in Alabama.
When the DA report accused Foster of three punishable offenses in April, his NFL future was in a precarious spot. Ultimately, he was exonerated from all charges in one of the most volatile legal cases regarding an NFL player in recent memory, paving the way for his return with the 49ers in late May. Earlier this month, the NFL suspended Foster for two games for violating the league’s personal conduct and substance abuse policies.
It was the absolute best case scenario for Foster and the 49ers. How quickly things can change in four months.
And finally, Foster can focus on building upon an exceptional rookie season.
The Alabama product looked like a sure thing after winning the the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s top linebacker, in his final college season. A consensus top-10-caliber player, Foster dropped to the Niners in the 2017 NFL Draft largely as a result of that diluted sample test that deterred many teams from picking him. San Francisco scooped him at No. 31 overall.
Foster’s rookie season was broken into two parts, much like the 49ers’ campaign a a whole. He dealt with a high ankle sprain and rib injury that sidelined him for the greater part of the season’s first eight games. In Week 9, Foster returned to the field and dominated, collecting 14 tackles. The following week, he played every snap, a sign of the coaching staff’s confidence in the rookie, and added another 10 tackles.
Foster continued to impress, showing sideline-to-sideline speed, intelligence in run pursuit, and relentless tackling ability as the 2017 season drew to a close. He won November’s Defensive Rookie of the Month award after amassing 30 tackles in just three games. Foster finished second on the 49ers with 72 total tackles, collected in about nine full games worth.
The 24-year-old linebacker is one of the most promising young stars in the game. He was Pro Football Focus’ 59th-best overall player in the 2017 season. He was named a starter in ESPN’s under-25 lineup, voted on by its 43 insiders. In early May, John Lynch told KNBR that he views Foster as a ‘Hall of Fame-caliber’ talent.
Kyle Shanahan envisioned a Foster-Malcolm Smith duo when both players joined the 49ers prior to the 2017 season. While Smith, the Super Bowl XLVIII MVP with the Seattle Seahawks, excels in pass coverage and calls the defense, Foster is adept against the run, flying around the field to close down running lanes.
“I always tell him that he’s like ‘The Waterboy’ out there,” Shanahan said in June. “He’s just flying around ready to hit someone. (Smith and Foster) balance each other out very well so I think it’s a good tandem.”
Robert Saleh hailed from Seattle, where he learned the 4-3 defense that he is applying it in San Francisco in his second year as its defensive coordinator. As great as those prime Seahawks defenses were, they did not make the leap as the league’s top unit until its young linebackers blossomed. That includes Bobby Wagner, KJ Wright, and Bruce Irvin, three players who were drafted within a year of one another.
Foster will look to become San Francisco’s version of Wagner. He headlines a suddenly deep linebacker group that reloaded this offseason. The 49ers signed Korey Toomer, re-signed Brock Coyle, and drafted BYU product Fred Warner in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft. With Smith healthy after missing all of the 2017 season, and Foster fully focused on football, this group is starting to assemble.
COACH SPOTLIGHT: DeMeco Ryans, inside linebackers
The man instrumental in spurring Foster’s growth is Ryans, a former first-team All-Pro linebacker who concluded his 10-year playing career in 2015. Ryan and Foster share many similarities. Both grew up in Alabama, played their college ball for the Crimson Tide, and were unanimous college All-Americans.
Ryans already sees the promise in Foster.
“He is a much better player than I was,” Ryans said in late May.
Ryans saw Foster’s eye-popping talent early into his rookie OTAs. The 49ers linebackers practiced in one-on-one coverage drills with oncoming running backs and receivers and intercepted three passes in quick succession.
“I have never seen that before,” Ryans said Wednesday. “He has a natural knack, and he has the tools and everything needed to be a great linebacker.”
Ryans enters his first season in his current role as the 49ers’ inside linebackers coach. He spent his first career coaching gig in 2017 as San Francisco’s defensive quality control coach.
More questions plague the 49ers’ defense than their offense entering a highly anticipated 2018 season. The 49ers had the 25th overall scoring defense, allowing 23.9 points per game, in 2017. They allowed 351.6 yards per game, ranked 24th.
The core of the group lies in the linebackers, particularly Foster, the group’s prized pupil.
This story is part of a two-week training camp countdown highlighting 49ers coaches and ranking their most important players from No. 14 to No. 1. Check out the rankings below.