It’s a new day for Washington Football, but that doesn’t mean further success will come with any form of immediacy. Rebuilds take time, as NFL history has shown, but Washington’s roster, while rife with uncertainty, is also home to an immense pool of developmental potential. If certain pieces develop quicker than most in the coming season, Washington could progress faster than expected. One of those potential 2020 catalysts is linebacker Reuben Foster.
Reuben Foster’s career thus far
Foster has long been a household name in the NFL, but his reputation hasn’t yet matched his production on the field. Foster was a widely lauded linebacker prospect from the University of Alabama, who amassed 115 total tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks, and two pass deflections in his final collegiate season.
Foster wound up being drafted 31st overall in the 2017 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers traded up to select Foster, who’d fallen down the draft board primarily due to character concerns, compounded by an incident at the 2017 NFL Combine.
Foster quickly left concerns surrounding his character in the past, emerging as a standout in his rookie season. In ten games, Foster logged 72 total tackles, seven tackles for loss, and a pass deflection, earning recognition as one of the best up-and-coming defenders in the game.
Foster’s rise would be short-lived. Foster accrued a two-game suspension to start the 2018 season, and would later be released by the team following an arrest for alleged domestic violence.
The Washington Football Team would soon sign him off of waivers, and hold onto him through the conclusion of that legal saga — the charges would be dropped due to insufficient evidence — but Foster would never hit the field for his new team. On the first day of organized team activities in 2019, Foster tore his ACL and LCL in a non-contact incident.
Who is Reuben Foster in 2020?
Foster has faced a rugged path through his travels in the NFL, one that hasn’t seen him hit the football field since October of 2018. Foster, now 26 years old, has been sidelined for almost two years, and that time has caused many to forget the kind of player he was in his prime. But after being cleared for on-field activities by Ron Rivera and the Washington Football Team, Foster appears to be on the fast track to football once again.
With Foster now back in the football conversation, the question demands answering: What kind of player was Foster in college and with the 49ers, and what are the chances that he rediscovers himself in Washington? Let’s dive into some old tape to get an idea of his defining traits.
Analyzing Washington LB Reuben Foster on film
Going back to Foster’s college tape can help one discover the foundational traits of his play style — a style that rests on Foster being instinctive and aggressive. Check out this clip from the 2017 college football national championship game, where Foster snuffs out a halfback toss at the start of a play and takes down Clemson running back Wayne Gallman in the backfield for a loss.
On this play, Foster isn’t baited by the man in motion, and swoops into the backfield with authority, using his explosiveness and range to close the gap in quickly. Players with the necessary physical traits don’t always make these plays if they lack instincts or are not confident enough in what they see. Foster, however, is very confident and collected near the line of scrimmage, and his play reflects this, even dating back to his college days.
Here’s another play from the championship game that displays Foster’s prowess in the box, utilizing different traits to attain success. Here, Clemson tackle Mitch Hyatt manages to get to the second level and make contact with Foster, driving him back a few yards. Foster, however, has the strength to contest and disengage. After disengaging, Foster displays the recovery athleticism to dive back toward the running back and make the tackle.
A better lineman sustains the block on Foster, but Foster did what he was supposed to do, using his power and superior athleticism to gain separation. He then showed the flexibility necessary to recover and make a play against the ball carrier. Linebackers need to have agility and strength to thrive in the box, and Foster had these traits in spades.
Since joining the NFL, Foster has since trimmed ten pounds from his frame, further maximizing the athleticism he showed on his college game tape. As this Twitter clip from Pro Football Focus’ Mike Renner shows, Foster’s upside in coverage has become more apparent in the NFL. In his rookie season, he cut off deep crossers with his mirroring ability on multiple occasions. In the given clip, he kept up with Tavon Austin, who ran a 4.34 at the 2013 NFL Combine.
A trimmed-down Foster has proven to be an exceptional athlete at the NFL level, but even he doesn’t have Tavon Austin speed. What Foster does have, however, is the instinct at linebacker needed to time his drops and his advances efficiently, so that he can mitigate speed differences on the field. Some players are too hesitant, while others are over-eager to make plays, sometimes sacrificing optimal positioning. Foster, however, appears to have a feel for spacing and placement, and despite his hard-hitting, physical play style, he’s not reckless in his role.
Even with Foster’s instincts, however, there are times when his quick trigger can get the best of him. The clip below — gathered from Niners Nation — demonstrates this, perhaps two-fold. Foster first bites hard — and I mean hard — on the play action. He then overcorrects and backpedals backward to cover a receiver streaking across the field. In his haste, however, he doesn’t see that Fred Warner has already picked up the receiver. This miscommunication, bred by Foster’s mistake, leaves the flat open for an easy completion.
These are the kinds of mishaps that are to be expected from a young player, as Foster was 24 years old at the time of this clip’s creation. However, with Foster now being 26 years old, in a crowded linebacker room, these kinds of things won’t fly. Foster has shown patience before, but inconsistency in an area like this can lead to opportunities for an offense.
Reuben Foster’s outlook in 2020
On film, Reuben Foster is an athletic, instinctive linebacker who brings physicality as a tackler, and provides security both against the run and in coverage. He’s an enforcer, who at the same time, has three-down potential with his athletic freedom.
That film, however, is at the very least two years old. In addition, that film came before a catastrophic knee injury in which Foster tore multiple ligaments and suffered nerve damage. There’s a chance that Foster could return to full health; he wouldn’t be the first. But every situation is different, and until Foster makes it back to the field and shows he hasn’t lost a step, people will be questioning whether he’s the same player he once was.
If Foster does have the same explosiveness and range he boasted years ago, however, then he’s in a perfect situation for his pallet of traits. Foster will be playing behind a deep, talented defensive line in Washington, emboldened by a 4-3 scheme change, and he’ll be coached by three former linebackers in Ron Rivera, Jack Del Rio, and Steve Russ, as well as Thomas Davis, a valuable veteran mentor. Davis, in particular, is excited about Foster’s progression, as he revealed in the quote below:
“I try to talk to Reuben as much as I possibly can. Reuben, he’s excited, man. He’s energetic, and he’s up-tempo. He’s always just ready to get back on the field as much as he possibly can when he was that opportunity. He’s just out there working hard and we’re just trying to constantly encourage him to continue to fight, continue to work and just let the chips fall where they may at the end of the day.”
If Foster can stay healthy and stay focused, he could live up to his first-round billing and eliminate linebacker as one of Washington’s 2021 draft needs. For a long time, football hasn’t been at the forefront for Foster. Now it is, and now it’s up to Foster, not only to make people remember how impactful he once was but to remind them that he’s still here.