The San Francisco 49ers were going to get Reuben Foster some quality playing time this season even if Malcolm Smith had not gotten hurt. Smith’s injury does not change Foster’s potential, but it does mean we are going to see him in a more significant role more quickly.
Foster has been making plays left and right in training camp, showing up with an interception here, a fumble recovery there. The coaches have pointed out mistakes he has made, but they also quickly point out how he generally never makes the same mistake twice. He takes the mistakes, learns in the film room and with his coaches and veteran teammates, and is prepared the next time the situation arises.
Foster’s talent is undeniable, but his time at Alabama seems to have prepared him for this moment. He chatted with the media on Monday (video, transcript here $), and he talked about how Alabama made him a strong football student.
“Yeah, it's part of the program at Alabama. Also they take their time here to take you to perfection on the field. And just what to look at — the ins and outs of football, just like Alabama. It's really hand-to-hand the same, and that's great.”
Kyle Shanahan and Robert Saleh have both commented on how strong he is learning the playbook and working in the class room. His shoulder injury left him unable to compete in most drills at OTAs and minicamp, but he shined in the class room.
On Monday, Saleh said that getting reps is the way Foster will improve his game.
“He needs reps. He’s still a rookie. The game is faster, the linemen are faster, they’re stronger. The scheme is different. So, he just needs reps, over and over, and over again. He just needs to get attacked, and all the different fundamentals that we’re asking him to do, he needs to get attacked in those situations just so he understands what his weaknesses are within the scheme.”
Foster is listed as the first team linebacker on the first preseason depth chart. Saleh has said that Ray-Ray Armstrong is still competing for the starting role, but it seems safe to say that Foster is making strong progress towards fully claiming that starting role. I could see Armstrong getting some first team reps over the rest of camp, but I would not be surprised to see Foster claim the full-time starting role before too long.