© Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
After three-and-a-half months of uncertainty amid Reuben Foster’s public domestic violence case, Wednesday provided a reassuring sight for 49ers fans: the prized middle linebacker sporting his No. 56 jersey.
Foster went through individual drills Wednesday afternoon. He did not participate in team drills as a precautionary measure, although defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said he is in good enough shape to have gone through a full practice.
“Reuben, he is in a good spot right now,” said Johnny Holland, the 49ers outside linebackers coach. “He has been through a lot as far as the offseason. Going through court cases, you never know what’s going to happen. And he still has a long road to go, but he is excited about being back out here. He is family. We are going to keep him encouraged when he is away, and welcome him back, and glad for him to be back.”
With the attention diverted from his domestic violence case and redirected to football, Foster can pick up where he left off after a phenomenal rookie campaign.
Last year, Pro Football Focus ranked Foster as the fifth-best inside linebacker in run-stop percentage. His 90.7 overall rating placed No. 2 out of all rookies, and he ranked sixth overall out of all NFL linebackers. The scary part: he played only 553 snaps and missed six of San Francisco’s first eight games.
In 10 contests, the 2017 first-rounder flashed why John Lynch views him as a ‘Hall of Fame-caliber’ player. Foster is an elite athlete with tremendous instincts and ball skills.
49ers inside linebackers coach DeMeco Ryans saw his 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 Foster 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— the 2006 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, two-time Pro Bowler, and 2007 first-team All-Pro— was asked which parts of his game could be applied to Foster’s. Ryans chuckled.
“He is a much better player than I was,” Ryans said.
Where multiple coaches feel Foster needs to improve, though, is eliminating tackling by leading with his head and shoulders. Ryans added that Foster can use his hands better when approaching oncoming blockers. Aside from those points, several 49ers coaches praised Foster’s premature grasp of Saleh’s system on Wednesday.
“There was huge excitement (when he returned last Thursday),” Ryans said. “Everybody knows the type of guy Reuben is and the energy he brings to our team. Everyone was excited to have Reuben back, and knowing the type of player he is as well, we got much better.”
Whenever John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan talk about what they look for in recruiting players and coaches, there is a common buzzword: intelligence. That was a theme in picking the 49ers’ 2018 draft class, as Lynch later commented that several of their nine picks could ‘moonlight at Google.’
When Saleh was asked about his first impressions of the defensive rookies, his response should not be surprising.
“It’s a really smart group,” Saleh said. “They have talent for sure, but their ability to take in all the information we are giving them and apply it to the football field… It’s pretty cool.”
Third-round linebacker Fred Warner was the highest pick of the defensive players that San Francisco drafted. The 6-foot-3, 236-pounder mostly played outside linebacker at BYU, where he said he was matched up in the slot about 80-90 percent of plays. He ran a 4.46 40-yard dash, lifted 21 bench repetitions, and produced a 38.5-inch vertical at the NFL Combine — physical traits that allowed BYU to move him all over the field.
“I don’t see (him) as a modern day (linebacker)— he can play the run and he can play the pass,” Ryans said about Warner. “He is a very athletic guy, a tall guy, but he can do both.”
Fewer than two weeks into OTAs, Warner has impressed multiple 49ers coaches with a similar skill: his ability to diagnose. There are those Google smarts, again.
“He is very athletic, he has long length, can get off blocks, and he has the speed to get away from blockers,” Holland said. “He diagnoses very well. We are very excited for what he has shown so far.”
Different coach, similar praise:
“Early on, he has shown really good heavy hands, which is great, a pleasant surprise,” Saleh said. “His ability to read and diagnose and do all those things have been really, really good.”
Some of the bizarre thinking behind the 49ers draft selections was converting fourth-rounder Tarvarius Moore, a college safety, to cornerback in the NFL, while converting DJ Reed, a college cornerback, to slot corner and free safety.
The position switch has gone relatively smoothly for Moore. Defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley says Moore is still a little raw, but he has been patient and quick to grasp concepts.
“(He is) very instinctual,” Hafley said. “He picks up on things really quickly. And you can tell in the room he is on it.”
The rookies have collectively made a positive first impression among the coaches, but Saleh says he will hold out final judgment until they put on pads.
Jimmie Ward: the expensive insurance policy
When the 49ers picked up Jimmie Ward’s fifth-year option this offseason, it meant he will make $8.526 million in the 2018-19 campaign.
He is not projected to start.
Secondary depth is essential, however, where attrition is an unfortunate inevitability. Ward has played just about everywhere— including safety, slot corner, and cornerback— during his four seasons with the 49ers. He has taken reps as the starting cornerback opposite Ahkello Witherspoon during OTAs, but that is almost certain to change when Richard Sherman returns to the field during training camp as he recovers from an Achilles tear.
The projected starting secondary features Adrian Colbert, Jaquiski Tartt, K’Waun Williams, Sherman, and Witherspoon. But Saleh is hesitant to pencil in that lineup with nearly two months remaining before training camp begins.
“There are no promises,” Saleh said. “The plan is status quo. (Ward) is going to play corner, and he’s going to get reps, and he’s going to compete. I know it sounds like coach speak, but the two best corners will play corner.”
Ward started at free safety last year. When he suffered a broken forearm in late October, Colbert stepped in as a rookie and played well enough to supplant Ward as the returning starting free safety. Tartt was signed to an extension this offseason, nearly ensuring his starting spot in Week 1.
Ward’s spot at cornerback may depend on health during the regular season, but for now, he is firmly entrenched at the position.
“When you are trying to get somebody acclimated to a position, they need reps,” Saleh said. “It is very hard to ask a guy to play corner nickel when he needs to get re-acclimated to playing corner again.”