A year ago, Reuben Foster was one of the best rookies in the NFL.
The former All-American from Alabama was a tackling machine at linebacker, roving sideline to sideline. He shed blocks, tackled with speed and physicality and made an impression across the league.
Foster didn’t win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, mostly because he missed six games to injury, but there was no doubt about his talent in the league.
“He hits the daylights out of people,” said his defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh, at the end of the 2017 season. “… It’s been a while since I’ve seen someone who hits as hard as he does.”
But in Year 2, Foster hasn’t been the same linebacker.
As the 49ers head into Sunday’s game in Arizona against the Cardinals, Foster hasn’t been as dynamic. A right-shoulder injury – which he incurred before the 2017 draft – is bothering him again and apparently has impacted his play.
As Chris Biderman of the Sacramento Bee noted, Foster missed three tackles in a loss to the Rams last week, while only making one. Through five games (he missed the first two because of suspension), Foster has 28 total tackles and three tackles for loss. He averaged 7.2 tackles per game in 2017 and is averaging 5.6 this year.
“I’m down on myself because of injury, but I just have to maintain and know that the storm won’t weather for long,” Foster told Biderman.
As Biderman wrote, “(The injury) has affected his tenacity as a tackler and physicality when trying to shed blocks. He’s been well below average after playing like one of the league’s up-and-coming linebackers last season.”
The analytic website Pro Football Focus graded Foster as the fourth-best linebacker in the entire NFL last season. This season, PFF grades him 136th – with 12 missed tackles.
Ben Linsey of PFF wrote this week that Foster not only has slipped as a tackler, but has been worse in pass coverage. Wrote Linsey: “He is being picked on more, and it is working for opposing offenses.”
Foster will get another chance to get back on track Sunday, when the 1-6 49ers take on the 1-6 Cardinals. Kickoff is set for 1:25 p.m. The 49ers are one-point favorites.