How will a Foster-sized hole in the defense affect the 49ers for the first two games of the season?
As odd as it sounds, the 49ers and their fanbase got some good news on July 3, when the NFL announced that linebacker Reuben Foster would be suspended for the first two games of the 2018 season. It was a suspension Foster and the team knew was coming, but with the second-year linebacker missing only two games, it’s considered the best case scenario for the team.
Foster was a force in the second level for the 49ers defense. Although Foster missed six games last year with nagging injuries, he still ranked second on the team with 61 tackles and 13 assists. Foster was at his best playing the “Will” linebacker position, where his combination of speed and instincts allowed him to roam sideline to sideline and fill gaps with crushing hits. With a new defensive scheme installed, the 49ers improved upon their historically bad run defense from 2016, when they ranked 32nd in the league, to 11th overall in 2017. Foster’s play was a large part of the defense’s improvement. He finished his rookie campaign with a 90.7 grade from Pro Football Focus, good enough to rank fourth among linebackers.
So, what does this mean for the defense the first two weeks of the season? In Week 1, the 49ers travel to Minnesota to take on the Vikings and will have to contend with Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray; they follow that up with their home debut against the Detroit Lions, who struggled running the ball last year, finishing last in the league in rushing offense. Linebacker Brock Coyle underwent offseason surgery on a torn labrum in his shoulder and is expected to be back by training camp, and Malcolm Smith will return from a torn pectoral that cost him his entire 2017 season. Neither of these guys are on the same level as Foster, but both are capable of filling in for the two games that Foster will miss. The defense will also be helped by a stout front four led by DeForest Buckner, and two hard hitting safeties in Jaquiski Tartt and Adrian Colbert. I expect the defense to take their lumps in the first two games, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the team 1-1 when Foster returns.
But every cloud has a silver lining. What could the silver lining be to losing an All-Pro level linebacker for two games? Well, it means Fred Warner will be getting on the field early and often. While Smith and Coyle are the “now” at linebacker, Warner, along with Foster, is clearly the future. Warner was the team’s first defensive player selected in the 2018 draft and the earlier the team can see what he’s capable of the better. Considering that Smith’s dead money drops from $8.1 million this season to $4.2 million in 2019, you have to doubt he’s in the team’s plans for next season, which makes Warner’s play all that more important. During OTAs Warner was getting time at the “Mike” position, learning to identify formations and call out the defensive play, this would allow Foster to play the “Will” where he thrives.
While the loss of Foster for two games will hurt the defense. I think the long-term ramifications of getting Warner on the field earlier will actually help the team. The sooner we can find out if Warner will be the Bowman to Foster’s Willis, the better off we’ll be.
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