The 49ers took a calculated risk when they drafted Reuben Foster in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. The Alabama linebacker was a consensus top-five talent tarnished by red flags of both character and injury concerns.
Foster was sent home from the NFL Combine after an altercation with medical staff, and the league was notified later that he’d failed a drug test due a diluted sample. There were also concerns over his shoulder that required surgery following his senior season to repair labrum and rotator cuff damage.
General manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan were willing to overlook his faults, trading back into the first round to draft Foster after a surprising slide to pick No. 31. Fast-forward to midway through his sophomore season and the 49ers are already dealing with the consequences of drafting Foster.
The 49ers linebacker’s turbulent offseason is well-documented, with marijuana and a weapons possession charges resulting in a two-game suspension for violating both the personal conduct and substance abuse policies. He also went to court for a felony domestic violence charge that was eventually dropped.
Now, as the negative headlines begin to fade, the shoulder injury that many felt made Foster a huge draft question mark is returning to haunt him.
“Another source predicted that Foster would not make it through his rookie season and that the linebacker’s shoulder could give out on any hit,” ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported following the draft. “The 49ers’ doctors, however, are comfortable with the condition of Foster’s shoulder and hopeful it will hold up, though they understand there could be a risk, according to sources.”
There’s no way of knowing if Foster’s shoulder has truly given out, but it’s unquestionably hindering his play. Oscar of the Better Rivals podcast discovered a fascinating clip from the 49ers’ Week 5 contest against the Arizona Cardinals. Foster, who’s on the left side of the second-level, pursues running back David Johnson with his right arm limp at his side, using only his left arm to drag Johnson to the turf.
Reuben Foster knows you don’t get bonus points for playing with one arm, right?— Oscar Aparicio (@BetterRivals) October 24, 2018
I’m no doctor, but I’m thinking some kind of shoulder injury is limiting Foster’s spark. pic.twitter.com/eKty4aZWtE
Foster was officially diagnosed with a shoulder injury following that Week 5 contest against the Cardinals and has been on the injury report ever since. Foster was listed as a limited participant for two practices leading up the 49ers’ Week 6 matchup against the Green Bay Packers. He’s been a full participant in every practice since.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was asked about Foster’s ailing shoulder while meeting with the media Thursday:
“He’s going through some stuff, obviously. But, it’s not going to stop him from playing. He’s a fighter. He wants to be great. It’s very, very important to him. So, whatever ailment he may have it’s not going to stop him from being on the football field. It might trigger here and there, but he’s not coming off. It’s something he’s just going to have to deal with.”
When asked if he’d rather Foster take himself out of the game than play with one arm, Saleh replied, “Sometimes.”
The plummet for Foster has been fast and steep. He finished his rookie season as one of Pro Football Focus’s top linebackers, receiving an 81.2 grade, good for 9th in the NFL. Foster’s grade through the first seven games of 2018? 44.3, ranking 76th out of 85 qualifying linebackers. From top-10 to bottom-10 in less than half a season.
PFF’s Ben Linsey wrote an interesting article on Foster’s fall from grace in which he dropped this unfortunate statistic:
Foster’s 12 missed tackles in 2018 ranks him second among all defenders in the NFL, despite missing the first two games of the season. He hasn’t faired any better In pass coverage, allowing 20 completions on 27 targets for 228 yards, two touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 123.7.
“All I can do is just fight for my team, fight for myself,” Foster said Thursday, per Sacramento Bee’s Chris Biderman. “This is a game that I love. I’m not going to let a shoulder hold me back. I’m going to rehab it and listen to the coaches and listen to the trainers and see what I need to do to maintain my body and see what’s best for the team.”
Foster and the 49ers now prepare to face the Cardinals for the second time in four weeks, this time on the road in Arizona’s State Farm Stadium. Perhaps the same opponent that brought Foster’s injured shoulder into the spotlight will provide the spark that ignites Foster’s turnaround toward the dominant form the 49ers were betting on as a rookie.