Kyle Shanahan calls Reuben Foster a starter but leaves door open for change

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Since San Francisco 49ers weakside linebacker Malcolm Smith suffered a torn pectoral that landed him on injured reserve Aug. 5, it seemed like a fait accompli that rookie first-round pick Reuben Foster would take over that job on a permanent basis.

On Tuesday, Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said that Foster is indeed the team's starting weakside linebacker. But Shanahan also cautioned that the appointment is only going to stick if Foster continues to perform.

"He started the last game, he’s been starting out in these practices,” Shanahan said. “He’s been getting most of the reps, which I believe he needs. But by no means ... he can get beat out at any time with our guys behind him. We’ve got some good guys behind him too. If they start performing at a higher level than him, that wouldn't be the case."

After Smith's injury, the Niners said Foster and Ray-Ray Armstrong would be the primary competitors for that job with each player taking turns with the first-team defense. They alternated for a couple of days last week but Foster has been with the starters in the first preseason game and again the first couple of practices this week.

The main goal for Foster right now is to get as many reps as possible after he was limited to non-contact drills in the spring. He played 27 snaps in the preseason opener against Kansas City, splitting time between weakside linebacker with the starters and middle linebacker with the No. 2 defense.

On Monday, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said Armstrong still is in the picture.

“They’re both doing a really good job with what we’re asking them to do," Saleh said. "Reuben’s obviously made a couple more plays. Ray has made some plays, but Ray, he’s not out of it by any means. We’re still far from putting a stamp on any evaluation on anyone on the defense.”

That seems to be the case for now, but with each passing day, Foster's grip on a starting job seems to tighten.

Some other news, notes and observations from Tuesday's practice:

-- 49ers defensive end Aaron Lynch did not practice because of the ankle injury he suffered Monday but Shanahan indicated he'd be day to day and it doesn't seem serious. There's even a chance Lynch could be ready to play Saturday night against the Denver Broncos.

-- Left tackle Joe Staley got a veteran's day off and did not practice. That left first-team reps for Garry Gilliam at left tackle with Trent Brown in his usual spot on the right side. The Niners have also flip-flopped that duo when Staley has sat previously.

-- The Niners were not in full pads again Tuesday but plan to be padded up for Wednesday's practice with the Broncos. Shanahan indicated the teams would only be in full pads on Wednesday before going back to shells on Thursday.

-- Overall, it wasn't a great day for the offense as the defense seemed to get the better of it for most of the day. Defensive end Elvis Dumervil was particularly active, coming up with a couple of would-be sacks and creating pressure in a couple of other reps. Safety Vinnie Sunseri came up with an interception against backup quarterback Matt Barkley, who telegraphed a throw over the middle for Victor Bolden Jr. and threw it right to Sunseri.

-- The offense did find some success in red zone work with quarterback Brian Hoyer connecting with Pierre Garcon, tight end George Kittle and receiver Trent Taylor for scores. Barkley also hit wideout Louis Murphy Jr. and tight end Cole Hikutini for scores.

-- Defensive tackle D.J. Jones has been getting more work with the second-team defense as DeForest Buckner works through an ankle injury and he has had a couple of good moments. He deflected a pass in team drills and has been playing three-technique and nose tackle in the past couple of days.

-- Linebacker NaVorro Bowman has had some rough moments in coverage in camp, including the long pass he allowed to running back Joe Williams on Monday. But he still looks like a difference-maker in the run game, regularly showing up in the backfield and tagging up on the team's running backs. On one play Tuesday in the "move the ball" period, Bowman burst through the line and tagged up on running back Carlos Hyde for what would have been a loss.

-- The Niners don't hesitate to rotate a variety of receivers through the first group. Kendrick Bourne and Aldrick Robinson have been getting work with that group the past couple of days after both had strong outings against Kansas City.

-- Something you don't see in an NFL team meeting room very often: a basketball hoop. But sure enough, there was one sitting in the Niners' meeting room on Tuesday afternoon. Shanahan said he uses it as a sort of tiebreaker for practice competitions. Normally, that means a free throw shooting contest between a member of the offense and a member of the defense. Asked who the best shooters are, Shanahan laughed and said, "We have a bunch of good football players." Shanahan did cite defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina as one of the worst shooters in the room so far.

-- The 49ers will be back at it Wednesday with a joint practice set against the Broncos.