SANTA CLARA, Calif. — After two offseason arrests left linebacker Reuben Foster‘s future with the San Francisco 49ers in doubt, general manager John Lynch made it abundantly clear that for Foster to remain with the franchise, he would need some help and he’d have to help himself.
“One thing we knew was we were going to have to put great structure around him,” Lynch said at the NFL scouting combine. “I think one lesson I’ve learned is it’s probably a lot easier to do that in a college atmosphere than it is in the NFL. These guys have to be men.”
As Lynch was quick to point out, there’s only so much the team can do to help players avoid trouble away from the field. At some point, they have to handle their business like professionals. But that doesn’t mean the 49ers aren’t going to do what they can to provide structure for Foster.
In fact, the Niners began working on that the moment they drafted him in 2017 after character concerns had a hand in pushing Foster to the bottom of the first round. Part of the reason they felt comfortable drafting Foster was the presence of multiple potential mentors, not least of whom was then-assistant inside-linebackers coach DeMeco Ryans.
At the time of his hiring, Ryans was just two years removed from finishing a strong, decade-long NFL career in which he won the 2006 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award and went to two Pro Bowls as a linebacker for the Houston Texans and Philadelphia Eagles.
That Ryans knew the position and had so much success at it made him an easy fit on Kyle Shanahan’s staff. That Ryans was not far removed from the game and still in his early 30s also meant he would have little trouble relating to young players entering the league. In Foster’s case, all of that was only buoyed by the fact that, like him, Ryans played at Alabama.
Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh were so impressed with Ryans’ work in his first year on an NFL staff that he earned a promotion to inside linebackers coach this offseason, a move that followed the hiring and nearly immediate departure of Ken Norton Jr., another coach the Niners hoped could offer guidance for Foster.
“DeMeco, he’s just got a great presence to him,” Saleh said. “He’s very, very smart. He wants to do things the right way so he’s full of questions. … So, with DeMeco, he hasn’t even scratched the surface of what he’s capable of as a football coach.”
That’s a belief the Niners also have when it comes to Foster, a player outside-linebackers coach Johnny Holland recently called one of the top four linebackers in the NFL as a rookie. For Foster to reach those lofty expectations, he must avoid the off-field trouble that came soon after his first NFL season.
In the span of about a month, Foster was arrested for marijuana possession in Alabama, then for alleged domestic violence and possession of an illegal weapon in Los Gatos, California.
As Foster awaited resolution to his legal issues, he and the 49ers agreed that he would stay away from the team’s training facility, thus missing first two phases of the offseason program. He was welcomed back May 24 after the pair of felony charges related to domestic violence against him were dismissed. Foster has also since seen the misdemeanor marijuana-possession charge dismissed in Alabama after he completed a pre-trial diversion program. He pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor gun charge for which he will serve community service and will be on probation for two years. He could still face discipline from the NFL.
Throughout Foster’s time away, Ryans made it a point to be there to help in any way possible.
“For Reuben, just being a shoulder there for him to lean on, any way I can help,” Ryans said. “I tell [the inside linebackers] I’m open-door. I’ve been through what they’re going through right now so it’s easy for me to relate and help those guys. For Reuben, we have a great relationship and I’m here to help him on and off the field however I can.”
Now that Foster is back, the 49ers and Ryans are taking it slow in getting him re-acclimated. At recent organized team activities, Foster was kept out of team drills so he can work his way back into shape. The expectation is that he’ll be participating fully sooner than later. When that happens, Ryans is hopeful he can help Foster’s primary focus return to football and resuming his duties as one of the team’s two starting inside linebackers.
“For Reuben, it’s just being there and being able to practice and get on the field,” Ryans said of Foster, who missed multiple games in 2017 with shoulder and ankle injuries. “Last year this time, he wasn’t able to do OTAs so he missed a lot with the injury, so now for him it’s just a matter of getting out there, going through a practice and right now all the OTA practices and minicamp and getting familiar. I think Reuben is a really dynamic player, great player, and I think you’ll see great improvement from him this year. Year 2 in the system, him understanding the scheme and understanding what we’re trying to do, he has a really good grasp of. He’s a really smart guy, smart player and it’s not a huge learning curve for him.”
While most of Foster’s legal issues are now behind him, the Niners still hope to see plenty of growth from the 24-year-old. In the statement the 49ers issued upon Foster’s return to the team, Lynch said it’s been made clear to Foster that “his place on this team is one that must continue to be earned.”
There’s little question Foster will be able to do that on the field, where Ryans says he’s a “much better player than I was.” The next step is to put it all together both on and off the field.
“It’s just being consistent,” Ryans said. “Just the consistency, and that’s for all the guys, as a pro on this level you have to be consistent. That’s the thing — week in and week out, can you consistently do the same things over and over again?”