Here's why 49ers rookie Reuben Foster could be steal of 2017 NFL draft

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – San Francisco 49ers rookie Reuben Foster watched the training camp film Sunday evening. On the screen, he saw himself make the same read he’d made thousands of times over his career. It was the kind of play that makes a seek-and-destroy linebacker foam at the mouth: a hole comes open; a fullback barrels through it; a running back tucks in behind the lead block. Right about then, instinct kicked in and Foster locked into one mode: Nuke it.

So he did. Failing miserably.

Right about the time Foster was blowing up the fullback, he realized he’d just sold out in horrendous fashion to a run fake. Behind him, the wideout he was supposed to be covering was running free, catching a play-action pass and streaming downfield. It was the kind of thing that made him wince in the film session, a frustrating mixture of embarrassment and impatience over having to wait a day to fix the mistake.

“You want to correct it so bad,” Foster would say a day later, reflecting on the mistake. “To the point that it just disgusts how bad you feel after you mess up a play. I studied it with coaches and tried to perfect it. I didn’t know [head coach Kyle Shanahan] was looking at me and was trying to catch me slipping.”

Shanahan was. And he did, much to the chagrin of Foster, the 31st overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft who has already been raising eyebrows in just a few training camp practices. The same Foster who some NFL evaluators are suggesting – as recently as this week – was the best college player in this year’s class. There’s little doubt he’s already getting an education at the highest level of football. But there’s also already evidence that the 49ers’ draft gamble may have produced one of their brightest young lights on defense.

It might prove difficult to consistently fool rookie linebacker Reuben Foster (56). (AP)

To understand why, start with that play-action mistake on Sunday, which left Foster exposed in the afternoon film session and eager to get back out to the practice field. When he finally did on Monday, Shanahan ran the same play to see if Foster had learned anything from the miscue. The result? Foster read the play-action perfectly, then dropped into the second level of pass protection and intercepted his third pass in three practices. It left his head coach beaming.

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“He was the only guy I was watching,” Shanahan said later, admitting to going after Foster. “… It was something that he got beat on bad [Sunday]. We tried the same thing and he was ready for it and got the pick, which is what you hope he does. But for him to learn that lesson after one rep, that was an exciting one.”

It has been an eye-opening start for Foster, although Shanahan was quick to say that Foster’s other two interceptions were more a matter of “right place, right time” than him baiting a turnover. But Foster did catch three balls thrown in his direction – and that’s not exactly a part of his game that teams were raving about going into this year’s draft. If anything, Foster’s scouting report read like a dump truck parked in the middle of a defense. He was going to move opponents far more than they were going to move him.

There was a flip side to that, too. For all his upside when it came to blowing up running plays, Foster wasn’t necessarily seen as a bouncy, freakishly athletic guy in coverage. He never intercepted a pass while playing at Alabama – which is a little scary since NFL defenses spend around 70 percent of their time in the nickel package. If Foster was going to translate as a high-impact star at the next level, he was going to have to illustrate that he could hold his own in pass coverage. He has done that thus far, albeit largely against backups while the 49ers ease him into their defensive scheme.

Reuben Foster was the 31st player taken in the 2017 NFL draft. (AP)

“I might be training to be a defensive back,” Foster cracked Monday. “I’m having mad fun out there. … I’ve got the capability of doing a little bit of everything. Whatever the coaches need me to do, I’m there. I don’t mind dropping into man-to-man or whatever.”

For a franchise that rolled the dice a bit on Foster, it’s a step in the right direction. Make no mistake, Foster might be the gamble that defines the first draft of Shanahan and general manager John Lynch. Especially after Foster was removed from multiple boards due to off-field concerns and a shoulder surgery that had other teams hedging on his long-term career prospects.

Asked this week to revisit their opinions on Foster heading into the 2017 draft, personnel men from three different NFL teams told Yahoo Sports that there was a legitimate argument that he was the best player available. But all three echoed the same concerns, primarily that Foster ran with a crowd in college that raised serious red flags off the field. All three also prominently noted the presence of Foster at an Auburn nightclub shooting in 2016 which left three people dead – at least one of whom was friends with Foster. That, along with concerns about Foster’s shoulder, made him a sizable first-round risk, even after he slipped all the way to the 31st overall pick.

“We worked harder on [Foster’s background] than anyone because we became so intrigued with his play,” Lynch said this week. “We knew there were some issues out there. I talked at great length with [Alabama coach] Nick Saban. … Time will tell. We love the early returns. We’ve got a ways to go. He’s got good players in front of him, but I kind of like his chances.”

For his part, Foster said that he’s cognizant of the faith the organization has put in him. And it’s part of why he remained in Santa Clara essentially all spring and summer – not only so he could focus on his shoulder rehab, but also so that he could remain near the base of support the team has put in place for him. That’s a step in the right direction in the view of the coaching staff, including Shanahan, who has talked about Foster having the right people around him as the rookie settles into his professional life. Foster has clearly heard that message.

“There’s always room to improve. There’s always room to grow [off the field],” he said. “That’s why I don’t deny what coach is saying. I totally agree. That’s why I’m all ears toward what the program has to offer and what kind of structure they have for me.”

In many ways, that’s what Foster’s start has been about – finding the right structure, making the right corrections, and when he’s on the field, showcasing growth. And maybe even doing some unexpected things. It’s still early, but the 49er’s gamble appears to be paying off. Now Foster has to show he can carry that into the starting defensive lineup, whenever that opportunity comes.

“I can ascend quickly, but the fact is I’ve got to wait my turn,” he said. “I just wait until they think the time is right. There’s no hurry. When the coaches are ready, I’ll be ready.”

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