The San Francisco 49ers were a mess when head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch were hired following the 2016 NFL season.
San Francisco went 2-14 under Chip Kelly in 2016 and wound up with the No. 2 overall selection in the 2017 NFL Draft. The Niners traded back one spot and took defensive lineman Solomon Thomas third overall. Lynch and co. had their eyes on another prospect who was widely considered to be a first-round pick.
Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster began falling down the draft board. Off-the-field concerns with Foster were a major red flag leading up to the draft. First, he was sent home from the combine after getting into an argument with a student health care worker while receiving treatment. Following that incident, it was revealed that Foster had a diluted urine sample, which resulted in an automatic positive drug test. Still, he was considered one of the best linebackers available in the 2017 class.
No one could argue with his production on the field. According to several draft pundits, he won the Butkus Award as the top linebacker in the nation during his senior season and was the best available inside linebacker.
Foster was still available with just two picks left in the opening round, so Lynch pounced on the opportunity and sent second-and-fourth-round picks to the Seattle Seahawks to move up and pick Foster. Lynch was elated to get Foster, who he says one of San Francisco’s top-three rated players in the draft.
Lynch joined Bucky Brooks and Michael Robinson on the NFL Total Access Podcast: The Locker Room and was asked about some of the major lessons he has learned since being hired as general manager. Lynch alluded to the Foster experience as one of the turning points in his career as an executive (h/t Al.com). He realized that being the general manager is a lot different than being a teammate.
“At times, I think it can be extremely helpful,” Lynch responded when asked about the impact of his playing career on his current job. “At times, it’s probably a hindrance because you’re so convicted because those are the guys, the personalities that you played with.
“I think an example – and I don’t say that anything is a mistake, but I had so much belief in Reuben Foster and my ability to get to him. ‘OK, if he’s got some issues, I can help this young man out. I can be the one. I’m not playing anymore. I’m in the GM seat. I can put resources around him’ and all those things. But I think, probably, I’ve learned some tough lessons that it’s going to be hard to have that kind of influence and have that kind of connection because I’m not his teammate anymore. I’m actually in a different role.
“And Reuben’s a fine young man. Went through some tough things. I don’t mean to put him out there on that. But that’s an instance where I probably, my experience, feeling like, ‘You know what? I can get to him’ — sometimes you can’t. Or you can’t make a situation better because of the dynamics involved.
“But I do think it’s very helpful. I mean, you lived it. You know what’s it’s like to be a player and the challenges asked of them. And you’d better have a really mentally tough person because the NFL’s hard. There’s nothing easy about it. That’s what makes it so great, in my mind.”
When San Francisco took Foster, Lynch viewed it as a home run for the franchise.
“I can tell you right off the bat that what we had on the board was just under 200 players, and in terms of how we rated them, we got two of our top three players,” he said, per ESPN.com’s Nick Wagoner. “We were able to do that, and we’re thrilled. We’re ecstatic. We think these guys have a lot of traits of what we want to be about as a football organization.”
The early returns from Foster were promising.
After suffering an ankle injury in Week 1, Foster missed five games but returned with impressive performances. He was excellent in his rookie season, playing in 10 games and finishing with 72 tackles, 5 QB hits, and an overall grade of 90.7 by PFF, the second-highest out of all rookies. He was also named to the Pro Football Writers of America’s All-Rookie team.
But it would go downhill from there.
It looked like the 49ers had found an anchor piece for the defense, but once again, off-the-field issues plagued Foster. He missed the first two games of the season after being suspended due to weapons and drug charges he faced from the offseason. Then he was arrested on domestic violence charges following a Week 12 loss that led to his release from the team. Foster was picked up by the Washington Football Team but suffered a serious knee injury in May of 2019 and hasn’t played in another regular-season game since.
Lynch said the Niners had tweaked their approach to the draft over the years, which is a good characteristic for an NFL GM. After an injury-plagued 2020 season, both Lynch and Shanahan alluded to the fact the team was focused on durability when it came to the 2021 draft prospects.
After the Jim Tomsula/Chip Kelly fiascos, San Francisco has slowly started to become a destination franchise once again. Lynch and Shanahan have shown the ability to adapt and not get stuck with tunnel vision.