SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Believe it or not, for all of the bone-jarring hits levied by San Francisco 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster in his rookie season, there's at least one member of the coaching staff who believes Foster can become a better, more fearsome tackler in his second NFL season.
"This is going to sound ludicrous in a way, but I think he can be even more explosive and more violent when he hits with proper technique," defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. "When he learns to run his feet through contact, he's going to destroy people, without hurting himself. That's something that he's got to work on through the offseason is how to tackle the right way, because when you see him he just throws his entire body in there. But, if he learns to actually accelerate through contact with his shoulder through the sternum or shoulder through the thigh, those hits will just be what's already explosive will be even twice that. There's an element that he needs to work on with regards to his technique and tackling to not put his body at so much risk, and I truly believe when he does figure it out it'll be even more explosive."
That Saleh felt the need to put in the "ludicrous" caveat is a direct result of the fact that despite whatever flaws Foster might have in his tackling technique, it didn't prevent him from becoming an impact player in his first year. In 10 games, Foster finished second on the team with 72 tackles, falling just five short of leading the 49ers despite missing six games because of ankle and rib injuries.
If those numbers aren't enough, scouting service Pro Football Focus added even more in terms of Foster's immediate impact. PFF graded Foster as the best rookie linebacker and the fourth-best overall linebacker in the league. His grade of 90.7 was second among all rookies and he was ranked sixth on their list of the best rookies regardless of position only because of the time missed by injury. Foster was particularly dominant against the run, where PFF gave him a positive grade on 19.7 percent of his plays, which was almost double the league average.
Given all of that, it would stand to reason that you wouldn't want Foster to change anything about how he plays except for his penchant for injuries, right? Well, not exactly.
Even Foster believes he can do better by improving his technique.
"I need to learn more technique and learn how to hit," Foster said. "Of course, anybody wants to blow through somebody, I guess, I hope, on defense, but I've just got to learn the fundamentals and do what the coaches say and just really get on my technique."
Specifically, Saleh believes that Foster can do a better job of finishing his tackles by exploding through ball carriers. As an analogy, Saleh said it's like a golfer who decelerates his swing when he gets to the ball.
"You might still hit the ball 250, but if you accelerated through contact with all the right technique that ball might go another 25 yards," Saleh said. "It's the whole trying to get and understand what it feels like to accelerate through contact and what he needs to get done from a technique standpoint to get even more explosive."
The hope is that improving Foster's fundamentals will not only help him produce on the field but also allow him to avoid some of the nagging injuries that plagued him throughout the season. In each of the team's final nine games, Foster needed some sort of medical attention. Over the final three weeks, neck and shoulder stingers were a persistent problem, though the injuries weren't serious enough to keep Foster out for long stretches.
On the bright side, those shoulder issues were unrelated to the surgery Foster had on a torn labrum before the 2017 NFL draft. What's more, Foster will not need any further medical procedures on that shoulder this offseason.
That's particularly important because it will allow Foster to participate in every step of the offseason program this year after spending most of it last year rehabilitating his surgically repaired right shoulder. Foster also didn't have the opportunity to take part in the practices that focused on fundamentals during the spring.
"When you get going with those stingers, you really just need an offseason," general manager John Lynch said. "You need to be able to quiet down. He played valiantly trying to get through it. But, this offseason will be good for him. I think as he grows as a professional, like every young player, in terms of how to take care of his body on a week-in, week-out basis. He plays a very physical brand of football, so he's going to have to be better than a lot of people in terms of the way he takes care of his body."
The Niners believe they have some additional ways to help Foster take care of his body and strengthen areas that might be vulnerable to injury. In addition to his physical training, Foster plans to spend some time watching game film of other linebackers whom he believes play with ideal technique. Seattle's Bobby Wagner is at the top of that list and also happens to play in a scheme similar to what the Niners run.
Making this offseason even more important for Foster is the team's plan to install him as the middle linebacker and make him the de facto quarterback of the defense. After missing so much work last spring and then early in the season, Foster never had a chance to fully grasp the defense to the point where he could move from weakside linebacker to the middle.
With weakside linebacker Malcolm Smith expected to return from a pectoral injury, Foster's move to the middle figures to come sooner than later. Ideally, that would mean having the green dot on his helmet and being entrusted to communicate all defensive play calls.
"It's going to be hard to change my style of play, but that's what comes with the offseason, trying to get right, get shoulder strength, traps, really dial in on your body maintenance," Foster said. "Not holding the shoulder surgery against me, but, you know, just really dial in and just train and just find a way to play aggressive but not hurt myself."
Foster has a chance to quickly become one of the game's best young linebackers in short order. It's an idea that's far from ludicrous.