Sakamoto: How high can 49ers Reuben Foster fly in rookie season?

Aggressive. Physical. Tough. Those are three words on how I would describe the play of 49ers first-round pick LB Reuben Foster. A player who found himself in boiling hot water after being dismissed from the NFL scouting combine, it appears that is all behind the enigmatic yet electrifying rookie. 

Questions about his shoulder injury and if it will hold up, also didn’t help his draft stock. Still, the 49ers felt the risk was well worth the reward when the team traded up for his services. 

Fast forward to today and the move is paying huge dividends thus far. 

One of the lone bright spots, Foster has been showing strides that he’s not just a two-down thumper. What’s a two-down thumper? Two-down thumpers are linebackers who are stout on run downs but a liability in the passing game. A prime example is former 49ers LB Derek Smith

Smith originally came to San Francisco as a 2001 free-agent, hailing from the Washington Redskins. He would be a mainstay with the team for seven seasons. A tackling machine, Smith would amass 100-plus tackles in his first five seasons for the Niners before injuries derailed his career. 

A plug-and-play run stuffer, Smith was a sure-fire safe bet on first and second downs. However, the same couldn’t be said in obvious passing situations

But don’t think Foster is cut from the same cloth, as his skill set would dictate otherwise. Throughout training camp, Foster has been making game-changing plays in both the run game and passing attack. Whether it’s clogging up passing lanes or intercepting passes, Foster has proved he can play in space and do it at a very high level. 

But the question remains, how high will Foster fly in his first NFL season? While many 49ers fans would like to compare Foster to LB Patrick Willis, I’m not so sure. When looking at the measurables, Willis rated off the charts, running a blazing 4.51 40-yard dash, displaying a 39-inch vertical and showing off brute strength by knocking out 22 reps of 225 on the bench press. 

Aside from the numbers, it was Willis’ instinctive play that helped earn him Rookie of the Year and All-Pro honors his rookie season. The Ole Miss product would rack up 174 tackles, 4.0 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles. Can Foster duplicate that type of production in year one? The potential is there, the question is whether or not the shoulder will hold up for a grueling 16-game schedule. 

When evaluating linebackers, I heavily weigh three skill sets. Strength, instincts, and explosiveness. Why? I’ll explain in greater detail below, as I point out my logic behind those three key attributes. 

1. Strength: A linebacker needs to be able to set the edge in run-support. Aside from sound fundamentals and playing with proper technique/leverage, the linebacker must be strong enough to hold the POA (point of attack) while flushing runners back inside to their help. Too often we see linebackers try to side-step or “slip” past offensive lineman in an effort to make a play. That’s not good. A linebacker should be able to put a hat-on-a-hat with proper stack-and-shed form. They need to establish violent/heavy hands and then disengage from lineman on their way to the ball-carrier. 

Foster does this extremely well. He understands the assignment while rarely getting caught out of position. At 6-0, 229, Foster does not shy away from contact. A player who sums up his game in one word, when I asked him to label it, he didn’t hesitate, calling it “Savage.” 

2. Instincts: You don’t have to be the fastest player on the field in order to make an impact from the linebacker position. 40-time is a good measurable but a linebacker with good instincts can be just as dominant as a sub 4.5 40-guy. A prime example of this is LB Chris Borland.

He wasn’t the fastest by any stretch of the imagination running a modest 4.83 40-yard dash. However, it was his elite instincts in pre-snap recognition that allowed him to be a dominant force in the middle. 

49ers’ Trent Baalke may add depth at linebacker with Shayne Skov or Chris Borland

A film-junkie, Borland seemed to always have a knack for the football. Coincidence? I think not. A linebacker with good instincts, Borland proves my point on why instincts are just as valuable, if not more valuable than speed. 

Foster also has that box checked. When evaluating game-film you can see Foster making plays at or near the line of scrimmage simply due to instincts. An instinctive linebacker can sniff out screens, boot-legs, and trick plays at the drop of a dime, which is why Foster was so dominant in college. Many of his college highlights show him shooting the A and B gaps with ease. You can’t do that unless you know the play is going ball-side. Instincts show up on tape. Foster has it. Which brings me to my last of the three attributes, explosiveness. 

3. Explosiveness: A player needs to fire up those fast-twitch muscle fibers in order to be explosive. The vertical jump, 3-cone drill, and 10-yard split are all indicators of evaluating that skill set. It measures a players ability or inability to get to point A to point B.

The term sideline-to-sideline is a strong indicator of a linebacker’s explosiveness. Foster has that box checked. His violent blows, relentless pursuit, and non-stop motor are all reasons why Foster’s name is often associated with being a sideline-to-sideline player. His passion shows up on tape. His heart is unquestioned. His drive to be great is second-to-none. Simply put, Foster has all the intangibles you look for in a franchise linebacker. 

So when people ask for my opinion on how good Foster will be in 2017, I can’t help but think sky is the limit, as I believe Foster will be a dominant force en route to winning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, as he checks of all the boxes including strength, instincts, and explosiveness. 

In Foster’s preseason debut against the Kansas City Chiefs he recorded two solo tackles and one pass defensed. 

Ryan is the Founder/CEO of NinerFans.com, 49ers Beat Writer, Live Game Day Correspondent for Bleacher Report and member of Pro Football Writers of America. Born and raised in San Jose, he also graduated from San Diego State University. His work has been featured on NFL Network, 95.7 The Game, National Football Post, Sports Illustrated, FanSided Network, ESPN Radio, CBS Sports 810, and NBC Bay Area News. For more information, please contact him via email at ryan@NinerFans.com or call him at (408) 622-0996.

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