SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- As Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster's free fall through the first round of the NFL draft unspooled, San Francisco 49ers linebackers coach Johnny Holland kept reminding himself that no matter how much he wanted Foster in a Niners uniform, the chances were still slim.
Even as general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan attempted to trade up to draft Foster, Holland waited in his office with assistant coach DeMeco Ryans, trying not to get too excited.
"I thought Reuben as a player he was probably top-five picks in the draft as a player," Holland said. "When he fell out of the top of the first round, as a coach I thought there was no way we were going to get this guy, now. DeMeco Ryans and I were sitting in the office and talking about 'Well, if we get Reuben, where would we play him and where would he fit in our system?’"
What might have felt like nothing more than daydreaming soon became a reality. After attempting to move up for Foster with teams in the teens, the 49ers finally found a trade partner in the Seattle Seahawks and moved up from their spot in the second round to the No. 31 overall pick. They quickly grabbed Foster, whom Lynch has said was the third-ranked player on the team's entire draft board.
"A few hours later, Reuben’s name came up and it was a dream come true that the guy that we got a chance to know through the circuits of the visits, to have him in our meeting room now, we feel like he’s a top-notch player and he’s going to be a great player for us," Holland said.
Early in the draft process, Holland identified Foster as a player who could be a difference maker in coordinator Robert Saleh's defensive scheme. As Foster faced questions about a surgically-repaired shoulder and off-field incidents that included an argument with hospital workers and a diluted drug test at the NFL scouting combine, Holland joined Lynch and the rest of the scouting staff in doing their homework.
When that evaluation was finished, Holland believed in Foster. But as it turned out, he didn't need to pound the table for him come draft day. Lynch was already on board.
"That just says a lot about John that he believes in a guy because he’s a good football player and Reuben is a great guy," Holland said. "We’re just happy to have him in our building. I hope we can have a positive effect on him as a player and as a man. He’s wide open listening and we’re excited to have him and I’m sure he’s excited to be as well but we are definitely glad he’s in our room."
The task during the Niners' offseason program has been to get Foster up to speed as much as possible while he recovers from his shoulder surgery. During organized team activities and in this week's full-squad minicamp, Foster has been limited to drills that don't include contact. Off the practice field, Holland and Saleh have seen Foster paying close attention in meetings.
“He goes through all of his meetings," Saleh said. "He's very smart. He's absorbing all of the information that we're giving to him, going through whatever walk-thrus we have. He's just not physically cleared to have one-on-one contact so he goes through all of the individual drills and then after practice he's working with [head strength & conditioning coach] Ray Wright to get the conditioning part of it.”
When the Niners are on the practice field, Foster can often be found sidled up next to Ryans, himself a former Alabama linebacker who recently wrapped up a successful NFL career. Ryans' official job title is defensive quality control coach but he was a two-time Pro Bowler and Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2006, which makes him an obvious candidate to work with Foster.
"DeMeco has a very important role," Holland said. "DeMeco was a great leader and DeMeco played a high caliber football. You couldn’t ask for a better guy to be in the room with Reuben as DeMeco Ryans. He’s a guy that has great character, great football player and an honorable guy that Reuben is going to have his ears wide open to listen to. DeMeco just recently left the game and this is not new to him so Reuben sits by him every day and asks questions to him."
While Holland is quick to acknowledge Foster's frustration at being unable to participate further in practice, the Niners remain optimistic that Foster will be able to go when training camp arrives at the end of July. If and when that happens, Foster is expected to work at weakside linebacker, a spot currently occupied by Malcolm Smith. The competition among Smith, Foster and NaVorro Bowman is one that's likely to be a focus of this year's camp.
One thing the Niners aren't concerned about when it comes to Foster is what weight he plays at. The 49ers list him at 228 pounds but Holland said so long as Foster continues to hit how he hit at Alabama, he doesn't care how heavy Foster is. In Saleh's scheme, the linebackers are expected to run, hit and play in space.
It's Foster's ability to do those things that have Holland so excited about his future.
"I think in the last 10 years, he’s probably been one of the best inside linebackers that came out of college football," Holland said. "To have him in our building and be able to coach a guy like that, is valuable for our team and for the long term of the organization."