Fifty-Two Pickup: How the 49ers Can Learn to Play Without Reuben Foster

Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann

For anyone who cares about the San Francisco 49ers, last weekend was a particularly bad one.

Beyond their dreadful loss to the Buccaneers on the road, the team unexpectedly released one of its most promising and talented young players - second-year linebacker Reuben Foster.

The 24-year old Alabama alum was arrested on Saturday night and booked on a first-degree misdemeanor domestic violence charge for an alleged incident that took place at the team hotel in Tampa.

It was Foster’s third arrest in the past ten months and second charge of battery against the same woman (Elissa Ennis) since April 2018. Ennis had recanted her previous charges against Foster, but he was suspended the first two games of this season for violating the league's personal conduct policy stemming from a weapons offense and a misdemeanor drug offense that occurred in January 2018.

But, this time, the Niners decided enough was enough. They cut Foster on Sunday morning after he spent the night in jail.

The decision to let him go had to do with trust that was repeatedly broken after the team stood by Foster during his multiple infractions with the law in the two short years since he was drafted. General manager John Lynch said at a press conference this weekend, “We laid out very specific ground rules for Reuben and unfortunately… he didn’t live up to what we communicated… That doesn’t mean we don’t love him, we all do, we care about him, but we feel like it’s in the best interests of our organization to move on at this point, and that’s a very tough decision.”

So, now what will the 49ers do at the WILL linebacker position without Foster?

Considered a top-10 talent and the best linebacker of the 2016 draft class, the Niners took Foster in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft, 31st overall. During his rookie season, he showed Pro Bowl potential. In just ten games, he had a combined 72 tackles (59 solo) and 1 pass defended. Pro Football Focus graded him as an “elite 90.7 overall grade” that year and he made their list of the top 101 players from the 2017 season.

Foster had gotten off to a slow start in 2018 as injuries and mental focus continued to be problems for him. But, his talent cannot be denied. With his Alabama pedigree, speed, strength and ability to quickly identify plays, his football potential seems limitless. Not having him on the field and losing his energy in the locker room will be a huge blow for the Niners.

Moving forward, the 49ers will likely finish the season doing what they did on Sunday against Tampa Bay in Foster’s absence: split time between Elijah Lee and Malcolm Smith at the WILL linebacker position where Foster had been playing alongside rookie MIKE linebacker Fred Warner. But, since Smith is battling tendonitis in his leg, Lee should continue to see an uptick in play especially after his excellent performance against the Buccaneers on Sunday when he made a team-high 7 tackles in 49 defensive snaps. After the season ends, it becomes a different story. The 49ers will need to address this position with gusto. Foster and Warner were expected to be the dynamic duo for years to come under Saleh’s defense. Lee may not be the definitive answer.

Fred Warner will remain where he’s been at the MIKE linebacker position. He was picked in the third round of the 2018 draft by the Niners to help fill the void of Foster’s loss due to injury and the threat of suspension from his off the field antics. That decision by San Francisco was a very sound one at the time and is paying off as we speak.

Warner has performed well enough in his rookie season that Pro Football Focus recently said the 22-year old out of BYU will soon be “joining the league’s elite at the position with his ability to positively impact the passing game.” While PFF rated his run-game performance as needing improvement, they’ve been impressed with his mid-season performance whereby “among the 55 off-ball linebackers with at least 150 defensive snaps played in Weeks 8-12, Warner ranks third in overall grade (85.1) and, more impressively, first in coverage grade (88.6).”

Foster’s dismissal certainly raises new questions the 49ers likely did not see coming in the last several weeks since his return: Will they look to the draft or free agency to find his true replacement? Will this new positional void impact their choice of the first draft pick which they are likely to have in 2019? How will they approach other gifted football players in the future with similar off-the-field issues as Foster?

But, first, San Francisco still has five more games of the season to get through. Without the talents of Reuben Foster.

For a thorough timeline of Foster’s off-the-field difficulties since college, see this November 28, 2018 NBC Sports article.

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