SANTA CLARA — As he walked into various team meetings throughout this week — full-squad, defense, special teams — San Francisco 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster was greeted by chants.
“Everybody’s just pumped to see him back out there,” said defensive lineman DeForest Buckner. “Everybody’ll be like ‘Reu-BEN, Reu-BEN,’ it’s been exciting. Everybody can’t wait to see him out there, but nobody’s more excited than he is.”
After a rookie season that saw him ranked as one of the top inside linebackers in the NFL, Foster has spent the last two weeks on a league-ordered suspension, the result of a turbulent offseason. Then came Monday, when he was allowed to be fully involved in team activities for the first time since the preseason.
“It was like a holiday, just knowing I could come back and the play the game I love, for real,” Foster said. “So I’m just happy, just happy to be happy-go-jolly.”
Without being able to practice, without having one-on-one time with the staff and having to watch the first two weeks of the season from home, Foster said the toughest thing for him to do this Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs will be containing his energy in his first game back. It’s an energy the 49ers would be just fine with him unleashing.
“Just let it go, man, just let it go,” said cornerback Richard Sherman. “It’s his first game back, we’re excited to have him. He’s excited to be out there, he brings an incredible energy, speed and explosiveness and physicality to the defense, and we appreciate it.”
Foster returns to game action against a Chiefs team replete with speed, and armed with a quarterback, in Patrick Mahomes, who’s thrown 10 touchdowns and no interceptions this season. Without Foster at inside linebacker for the first two games, the 49ers have given up 385 yards per game — 23rd in the NFL.
“Everyone knows how good of a tackler he is,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan. “But, he’s also good in coverage. He can blitz the quarterback. He can do a lot of things.”
“I’m just happy just to be,” Foster said. “I’ve been playing my cards right, doing good off the field and on the field. Just going to do nothing off the field, if I don’t want to be off the field.”
Foster, a first-round pick in 2017, was arrested in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on Jan. 13 for second-degree marijuana possession. On Feb. 11 in Los Gatos, he was arrested on a claim of domestic abuse.
During the investigation of the domestic violence charge, police found a fully-loaded Sig Sauer 516 on Foster’s bathroom floor. The domestic violence charge itself was dismissed on May 23, as the accuser recanted and admitted the accusation was a search for money and vengeance. On May 24, the drug charge was dismissed due to Foster’s completion of a diversion program. On June 6, Foster pled guilty to a misdemeanor weapons charge, and was sentenced to two years probation, plus community service.
The NFL issued its two-game suspension July 3.
Sherman, as well as Adrian Colbert and Jaquiski Tartt, attended preliminary court proceedings in a show of support. Sherman had only met Foster once, last season, after the 49ers’ Week 2 loss to Seattle.
“He was hurt that day we played them at Seattle. I talked to him after the game, and we had a good conversation,” Sherman said. “He respected my game, and he said he’d watched me for a long time, and then, when I came here, he brought that back up. He said, ‘Man, I’ve been waiting. I’ve been praying.'”
It was no accident that, when locker assignments were handed out for the offseason program, Foster landed between veterans Pierre Garçon and Sherman, with Joe Staley caddy-corner to the trio.
“It’s fun, it’s an adventure, as I found out [Thursday],” Sherman said. “I was walking in here [to the team auditorium], and he had a snafu where he decided he was going to get undressed in the middle of the locker room, at this very moment in time when I was walking up. But, no, it’s been great.”
Foster has appreciated the one-on-one time he’s gotten with Sherman, an eighth-year corner who’s played in two Super Bowls. Sherman has seen a lot of growth in their time together.
“He’s a heck of guy, heck of a player,” Sherman said. “It’s been great to see him mature from everything that’s happened and moved on, because he’s a great guy and great person. And I think people are going to get a chance to see that. It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve gotten to know him better as a person. I’ve enjoyed it.”
Foster keeps meetings light with jokes and sarcastic comments, but he has been so careful that he even excused himself for the most modest of colorful language when giving his scouting report on the Chiefs this Thursday.
“I’ve been watching film, first week, second week. The new quarterback, their speed, just the whole thing, really. They’re physical, fast as hell,” Foster said, before catching himself. “I’m sorry, y’all. They’re fast.”
Tyreek Hill (259 receiving yards, 21.6 yards per catch, three touchdowns) is obviously a consideration, as is Mahomes, but the run game isn’t something that can be overlooked. Kansas City is averaging 116.5 yards per game on the ground — 10th in the league — but Sherman cautioned that head coach Andy Reid will give the 49ers “every single run in football,” from power to option. Foster can help there.
“Last year, I was getting doubled a lot in the run game,” Buckner said. “[Foster] showing up and showing up quick and reacting to the run game helps me out a lot and helps us in the middle. It helps all of us out. Also, his pursuit from sideline to sideline, it’s definitely a big factor.”
During just his third NFL preseason game last season, against the Minnesota Vikings, Foster laid out Dalvin Cook with a vicious tackle for loss. Defensive lineman Arik Armstead — the end closest to the play — had disengaged his blocker as he ran over to support. He didn’t have to. All he could say was, “Damn.” As a rookie, Foster was second on the team with 59 solo tackles and 72 total tackles. Pro Football Focus graded him out at a 90.9 in run defense.
“He makes a bunch of plays, but also, he brings that excitement to the game, gets guys going with his play style, too,” Armstead said. “When he makes a big play, we’re able to feed off that.”
His replacement in the middle — rookie Fred Warner — has tried to apply lessons learned watching Foster’s film to his own play.
“Biggest thing for me is tracking angles for making tackles, so his tracking angles are always on point,” Warner said. “That’s why he’s able to make some of those big shots, those kill shots, during a game. Kind of seeing that, and watching that, I try to have that more than anything.”
Angles are a major part of how San Francisco teaches tackling, and bad angles are a major part of why the 49ers have missed double-digit tackles each of the first two weeks of the season. Foster, said defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, is one of the best on the teams in terms of the angles he takes. Warner, though, has been far from a no-show, and has in fact been one of the bright spots for the defense.
So far, Warner has racked up 22 tackles over the first two weeks, and will likely retain the green sticker on the back of his helmet for Week 3. Foster has no problem with that, and said that not having the sticker just frees him up.
“It gives me free time to play football and get in somebody’s tail,” he said.
Even though they play the same position, Warner is happy to have Foster back, likely at the WILL.
“Shoot, not only me, but the whole defense,” Warner said. “I feel like he just brings energy to our team. Obviously, he’s a fantastic player, athlete and a force out there on the field. Offenses have to account for him.”
Foster has been pleased with how Warner has done in his stead. Both he and Sherman said they see a bright future in the BYU product.
“I seen a dog in Fred,” Foster said. “I seen a real dog, a real mature man who’s about his business. I really salute him for that. I’m proud of him for stepping up and taking control of the defense. Wearing that green sticker, I’ve worn the green sticker. It’s hard to wear the green sticker, so I’m really proud of him, really.”
Shanahan intimated he’d like to see both Warner and Foster start alongside each other. Getting them both on the field along with Malcolm Smith at SAM, though, could prove difficult, since Smith last played the SAM “a long time ago,” according to Saleh. Saleh said, however, that the goal is to play the best 11, and that trio would certainly qualify. He also said that Foster looked fast, and had fresh legs this week.
“Reuben’s one of our best players,” Shanahan said. “… Just having his presence out there, just from a leadership standpoint, guys gravitate to him. We really enjoy having him around.”