SANTA CLARA — Two days after Malcolm Smith was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, the 49ers gave Reuben Foster every first-team snap at WILL linebacker.
Honestly, that was a surprise.
The No. 31 overall pick did not look out of place. At all. He had tight man-to-man coverage on tight ends over the middle of the field, once forcing a Brian Hoyer throwaway. He glided quickly to Carlos Hyde on a swing pass in the flat. The 49ers like using him as an occasional blitzer. His burst is apparent. His presence is felt.
Tap the brakes — momentarily. The 49ers won’t be crowning Foster any time soon, at least not publicly. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said Ray-Ray Armstrong will receive first-team reps on Tuesday. Saleh mentioned Foster has a knack for flash plays, but he’ll have busts. Armstrong certainly has strengths of his own, particularly in coverage. There is still a competition for the spot and a platoon could be the case for Week 1 against Carolina.
But it’s abundantly clear the 49ers are starting to trust their rookie. They gave him the first crack at WILL linebacker over Armstrong for a reason. They want him to own the position one day in the near future. It could come sooner than any of us thought, including Foster.
Part of that is because Saleh and Kyle Shanahan have been pleasantly surprised from Foster in the film room. Rarely is he making the same mistake twice on the field. NaVorro Bowman and assistant coach DeMeco Ryans are also mentors constantly instilling tips. Foster’s been a sponge. His retention of new information has been impressive.
“He’s much better in the film room, much better in the playbook than I had anticipated,” Saleh said. “He’s actually really, really, really smart.”
It’s worth mentioning that Foster learned quite a bit about X’s and O’s from Nick Saban at Alabama. The Crimson Tide play a complicated two-gapping defensive scheme, a rarity in college. The system is designed to take away “down-hill” runners and places major responsibilities on the inside linebackers. Saban teaches an array of different techniques to beat blockers, which requires players to identify different blocking schemes in the game. Foster also called the plays in the huddle for the Crimson Tide.
“That’s part of the program at Alabama,” Foster said. “What to look at? What’s the ins and outs of football?”
So Foster isn’t walking into San Francisco as just a strapping athlete. Don’t let his southern accent fool you: he’s got brains. It’s also worth mentioning the 49ers are playing in a simplified scheme. When a tight end motions, there aren’t 10 different checks the defense has to run though. Play calls are very black and white.
“It’s not a lot of thinking,” Armstrong told us.
Nine days ago, Foster was strictly with the third-team. Smith’s injury played a large part in Foster’s quick progression, but the task hasn’t looked too tall. And unlike fellow first-round pick Solomon Thomas, Foster was in the meeting rooms during OTAs and minicamp. His shoulder kept him off the field, but Foster was soaking in the coaching.
It might actually benefit Foster more if he plays with the second-unit Friday in the preseason opener at Kansas City. The starters will likely only play a few possessions in the first quarter. Foster’s in a position where he needs as many reps as possible, even if it’s with the backups. Saleh said he and Shanahan have yet to determine playing time for the preseason.
I asked Saleh if there will be hesitancy to play Foster a bunch right away, because his mistakes could impact the entire defense.
“He’s had flash plays and he’s had busts the common person won’t notice,” Saleh explained. “But at the same time, he’s been asked to learn a lot in a short amount of time. So for Reuben, it’s a matter of getting reps. What’s great about him is when he sees it once — even if he’s made a mistake — he’s able to regroup, regather himself back up.”
Some rookies buckle when you give them an increased workload. They rely on old habits. They start to think — too much. They don’t look like they’re up for the moment. That’s not Foster. Not at all.
“Really poise and confidence,” Foster said at where he’s looking to improve, which is crazy, because he’s shown both. “The call sheet is not that long. We can play fast and play relentless.”
All those red flags about Foster? The incident at the combine with a medical worker? The diluted drug sample? Those are ancient history. He’s going to be on the field early in 2017, and that could be the best thing for both him and the 49ers.