SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Last week's news about San Francisco 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster -- that he was being charged with felony counts of domestic violence with an allegation that he inflicted great bodily harm, forcefully attempted to prevent a victim from reporting a crime and had possession of an assault weapon -- will be addressed through the legal system in the coming days, weeks and months.
From a football perspective, there are plenty of ramifications for the Niners.
The 49ers saw Foster as a foundational piece for the defense and traded up to select him with the No. 31 pick in last year's NFL draft. Foster went on to finish second on the team in tackles, with 72 in 10 games.
But Foster was arrested twice in less than a month after the 2017 season ended, and now he's facing serious criminal charges that could land him in prison for more than 11 years if convicted. The Niners have announced Foster will not participate in team activities during the offseason program that opens on Monday.
While the 49ers have made it clear they intend to see the legal process through before deciding on Foster's future, they now find themselves in a position in which they have to gauge how Foster's uncertainty will affect the team's future at linebacker.
San Francisco doesn't have to make that determination right this minute, but having a handle on it sooner rather than later would help as the Niners prepare to make the No. 9 overall pick in the NFL draft on April 26. It's something they were already considering even before charges against Foster were filed.
Asked about the situation at the NFL scouting combine in February, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said, "Yeah, anytime you’ve gotten in trouble, whether -- and again, we are talking about a case, so I don’t know if anything is going to happen or not -- but anytime that stuff does come out, you’re subject to be suspended from the league. So anytime that starts happening, regardless of what they decide, that’s always a risk. We’re very well aware of that, and we have to take that into account. He has put us in a tough situation. Hopefully, it works out for all sides. But that is realistic. If I said it wasn’t, that wouldn’t be very smart of me."
Even if Foster is not convicted of any of the charges, he could still face discipline from the NFL up to and including a suspension. And if Foster somehow avoids any form of punishment, the pattern of off-field incidents dating to the 2017 pre-draft process and into his first NFL offseason means the Niners would be wise to find another legitimate, starting-caliber linebacker.
To some extent, they've already done that by signing veterans Brock Coyle and Korey Toomer. But neither is considered a long-term option. Which brings us back to the NFL draft and a pair of particularly intriguing linebacker prospects.
Namely, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the 49ers take a long look at Georgia's Roquan Smith or Virginia Tech's Tremaine Edmunds in the first round. Smith, in particular, would seem to have plenty of appeal to the 49ers, with or without Foster.
The 6-foot-1, 236-pound Smith was a wrecking ball for the Bulldogs last year, leading the SEC with 137 tackles while adding 14 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks, earning consensus first-team All-American and SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors and winning the Butkus Award. The junior also earned MVP honors at the SEC championship game and took home the Rose Bowl's defensive MVP award.
All of that, plus a 4.51-second 40-yard dash that ranked second among linebackers, has Smith widely regarded as one of the draft's 10 best players. ESPN's Todd McShay ranks Smith as the fifth-best player in the draft, while Mel Kiper Jr. has him at No. 4.
Normally, that would mean Smith wouldn't be available to the team picking ninth. However, this draft class could have as many as four quarterbacks off the board before San Francisco comes on the clock. That and the fact that Smith is considered a bit small could push him down into the Niners' territory.
Should Smith be available, his size won't be considered much of a problem. Deion Jones weighed 225 pounds when Atlanta took him in the second round in 2016. He now plays middle linebacker for the Falcons, who run a similar scheme to San Francisco's, and is considered one of the league's best at the position.
"I definitely watch Deion Jones," Smith said. "Just being able to watch a guy like that who came into the league and was labeled as undersized, and, you know, he fought against a lot of obstacles and went over them and got through it. So he's done a lot of good things for the Falcons and made a Pro Bowl this year. So that speaks for itself."
Smith told reporters at his pro day that he would be taking a pre-draft visit to San Francisco, so there is at least some interest there. And even if Smith wasn't asked to play in the middle as Foster's replacement, he could be a long-term fit next to Foster as the weakside linebacker.
While general manager John Lynch has made it clear in his year-plus on the job that the Niners intend to draft the best player available, marrying that philosophy with a need is always the ideal scenario for any team. In this case, it might just turn out that for the 49ers, the best player on their board with the No. 9 pick also happens to fill a need that has become far more pressing over the past couple of months.