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What happened to Reuben Foster?

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The first round pick is having a rough sophomore season

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NFL: Los Angeles Rams at San Francisco 49ers Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a rough year for San Francisco 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster. After a standout rookie season, expectations were high entering 2018. And then, well, his slow start finally got everyone’s attention because of a striking statistic: against the Rams on Sunday, Reuben Foster had more missed tackles (3) than actual tackles (2).

Here are some other statistics for this season: zero interceptions, zero forced fumbles, zero fumbles recovered, and only one pass defensed.

PFF raved about Foster’s rookie season:

“...he earned an elite 90.7 overall grade across 553 defensive snaps and landed at No. 59 on our list of the top 101 players from the 2017 season.”

Not 59th among rookies — that’s 59th among all 1,696 players active on NFL rosters. And in July, they listed him as one of 9 “Former NFL first rounders ready for big Year 2.”

This year? Not so much. His PFF grade for the season is less than half of last year’s, at 44.3. Sunday was even worse, an abysmal 29.3, the second-worst on the team in a very bad game.

There’s been a lot of talk about various non-Kittle 49ers having a “sophomore slump” — including Foster. But he’s different than a 7th round pick like Adrian Colbert, or an undrafted rookie like Greg Mabin. He’s not an overachiever unused to facing top talent, or a dude with a couple of tricks that the NFL may have figured out.

Foster was a first round pick, an elite talent, and first team All-American who won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker, while playing in the SEC. He was a projected as a top-ten pick and only fell to the end of the first round because of his bizarre meltdown at the Combine, and concerns about his shoulder injuries and rotator cuff surgery.

So what’s going on? Here are some theories:

Injuries

Foster left the Rams game early after aggravating his right shoulder, the same one he had surgery on, and he missed time his rookie season due to ankle and rib injuries. He’s still flying around all over the field, to a fault honestly, but Foster may be tackling tentatively due to shoulder pain — or not throwing his body around as recklessly after all his previous problems, in the hopes of missing fewer games.

That could be a smart adjustment but it means he’ll have to reinvent his game, to a degree. And definitely stop diving at players’ feet so much.

Overplaying

Last year’s team was not expected to be great or even good. This year, though, the hype was huge, and so was the disappointment. Maybe Foster has been trying too hard to make things happen. He reminds me a bit of Mychal Kendricks, the former Eagle more famous for being Rihanna’s crush than for playing well (and currently suspended “indefinitely” for insider stock trading). Kendricks had excellent athleticism but would often overrun his tackle targets or take bad angles.

Coaches talk about “letting the game come to you” instead of pushing it all the time. Kendricks never quite got the hang of that, on the field or in the stock market, and it looks a bit like Foster is pressing too. Once a player gets off-rhythm, the pressure to do better and try harder mounts. It can be hard to break that vicious cycle and relax into the flow of the game.

That’s a likely source for sophomore slumps in general. A lot of guys have basically never struggled before. They were studs in high school and college - that’s how you get to the NFL — and had a good rookie season. It must be hard to keep your head up when all of a sudden you’re getting roasted and fans are yelling, “YOU SUCK!”

A prime example of overthinking it came with 10:36 left in the 3rd. Rams receiver Josh Reynolds comes in motion and Foster follows him. Then he notices that K’Waun Williams is also following Reynolds, and that Robert Woods is left uncovered on the far end of the line. So he sprints over there, wildly, just before the snap, then pivots a second time as the play starts while he’s still running. He’s too late to make the tackle, naturally.

Mental Focus

49ers fans breathed a sigh of relief when Foster’s off-season legal trouble was resolved with just a two-game suspension, his domestic abuse charges dismissed, his marijuana charge dismissed after he completed a diversion program, and a plea bargain on his minor weapons offense.

But even so, he got himself into bad situations that most players have no trouble avoiding. It’s fair to wonder, is he entirely focused on football even now? Is he partying or playing video games when he could be watching tape or working out?

The general NFL talent level is so high that being talented and playing hard isn’t enough. And on many plays, Foster seems to read a play wrong, get fooled by misdirection or play action, or just be a step slow in diagnosing the situation.

This play, at 12:10 of the 3rd quarter, was an obvious passing down on 2nd and 12 at the Rams 23. Foster lines up on the hash mark at the 28, and drops back to the 32, but he’s sort of just watching the play. You can almost hear him thinking “Wow, that guy’s really open. OH CRAP, that’s my guy!” He runs over and makes the tackle, but only after giving up 11 yards.

Ultimately, of course, we can only speculate what’s going on with Reuben Foster. The coaches may see some things on film, or they may not. Even Foster might not know what the issue is.

On Sunday, Tim Kawakami asked Foster after the game how he thought he did — just him personally.

Over at The Athletic, Tim Kawakami says he asked Reuben after the game how he thought he did — just him, personally. Foster’s response does not sound like someone with a lot of self-knowledge or insight.

“I don’t know how I’ve played,” Foster said. “I can just look at my players, look at their faces, and see if I gave it my all within their eyes and see if I did give it my all. If I didn’t, then I’ll go to the drawing board … and see what I can do the next game.”

Foster clearly gives his all during the game; that’s not the problem. But feeling the flow of the game in real time — and doing the prep work to make that possible? Those aren’t things we can see.

What we do know is that Reuben Foster has the talent and the drive to be a playmaker, and this team desperately needs one (or two or three). Let’s hope that the coaches — and Foster himself — can figure out how to get him back on track. ASAP.