Grant Cohn: Reuben Foster, a costly decision by 49ers and now a lose-lose situation
They suffer if they cut him. They suffer if they keep him.
Reuben Foster put the 49ers in a lose-lose situation.
Actually, no. Let me amend that statement. The 49ers put themselves in a lose-lose situation. They never should have drafted Foster in the first place. And they probably know it now. They have to know it.
Police arrested Foster twice already this offseason. They arrested him for marijuana possession 12 days after the 49ers’ final game of the season. And they arrested him seven days after the Super Bowl for domestic violence, criminal threats and possession of an illegal assault rifle.
Foster couldn’t wait to get arrested.
I’m not criticizing him morally. And I’m not defending him morally. I’m looking at him in a strictly football sense, if you’ll permit me. Let me start by saying he’d be in a lot less trouble had he simply left his guns in Alabama and his marijuana in California. Those crimes seem like tricky technicalities.
And, of course, it’s possible he didn’t commit domestic violence. We have to wait for the facts to come out.
As I say, this is not a moral column. This is a football column. I’m focusing on Foster’s effect on the 49ers.
And his effect is only negative. They’d be better off without him and all the trouble he brings.
But, they almost certainly won’t cut him. Unless evidence shows he did something heinous like Ray Rice, the 49ers will keep him. Why? Because they’re too invested to give up on him and let him go elsewhere. They drafted him with a first-round pick. Traded a second-round pick and a fourth-round pick to move up and get him. Those are precious assets. He defined their 2017 draft.
Let’s say the 49ers do cut Foster. In that case, he would go to waivers, and the team with the highest waiver priority - the Cleveland Browns - would claim him without hesitation. For them, he’d be a low-risk addition because they wouldn’t have to use a high draft pick for him. They’d just take him from the top of the discard pile, something the Raiders did with Aldon Smith.
Even if the 49ers keep Foster and all of his baggage, they have to act as if they don’t have him. Because he’s becoming more an absence than a presence.
They simply can’t count on him being available next season, actually being there. The league probably will suspend him for at least six games. He’s a two-time offender this offseason, plus he came into the league with strikes against him (more on that later).
Foster also has injury issues. He missed 48 percent of the 49ers defensive snaps last season due to various ailments. He could miss the entire upcoming season for all kinds of reasons.
The Niners have to find a new starting middle linebacker even though they believed - hoped - Foster was their middle linebacker for years to come. Anything they get from Foster in the future will be gravy.
That means they have to spend money or draft picks or both on a linebacker they didn’t think they’d need. Or two linebackers. Foster plays all three downs. That’s hard to do. The 49ers may need a run-stuffer to replace Foster on first down and second down, and a coverage specialist to replace Foster on third down.
Think about how expensive Foster is becoming.
He will cost the Niners peace of mind the rest of the offseason as they worry if he will get arrested yet again. Teams aren’t allowed any contact with players until OTAs in late May, so the 49ers can’t babysit him. The way he’s going, Foster could get arrested three or four more times this offseason.
If they keep him, he will cost the Niners in the locker room as he undermines the culture and discipline the coaching staff is trying to instill in a young team. Foster is supposed to be a leader. He’s sending a message to the rest of the team that professionalism doesn’t matter. Character doesn’t matter. Talent matters. Foster gets extra leeway, so other talented players get leeway, too. His immaturity could spread and infect others.
He already cost the Niners the picks they traded to move up to get him.
And he cost the Niners the players they could have drafted instead of him, such as Pro Bowl running back Alvin Kamara, NFL All Rookie Team wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and Houston Texans inside linebacker Zach Cunningham.
Cunningham isn’t quite as talented as Foster, but Cunningham plays. He didn’t miss any games last season. He hasn’t been arrested. He isn’t in the NFL’s Substance Abuse Program. Foster is.
Foster was in the Substance Abuse Program when the 49ers drafted him.
The guy failed a drug test at the Scouting Combine. He failed a drug test he knew was coming years in advance. Tried to skate the test by drinking extra water and diluting his urine sample. Really thought he could trick a multibillion-dollar organization.
Foster was under the biggest microscope of his life. Everyone from the NFL was there examining him - doctors, trainers, scouts, coaches, general managers and owners. And he went ballistic. Screamed at a student hospital worker. Couldn’t control his behavior for just a few days. So, the NFL tossed him from the event.
The rest of the NFL noticed. None of the other teams traded up to draft Foster in the first round. That was a risk only the Niners would take.
They were an ascending team before Foster’s arrests. Even after the Eagles won the Super Bowl, people were talking about Jimmy Garoppolo, his contract and the 49ers’ chances to win the Super Bowl next season.
Now, Foster dominates the conversation. Is he a woman beater? How long will the NFL suspend him? Will he get arrested again? Will the 49ers cut him? Can they make the playoffs without him? Will they draft another middle linebacker in the first round?
Foster’s issues overshadow the team, the five-game winning streak, the Garoppolo trade, Garoppolo’s $137-million extension, everything.
This is what the 49ers signed up for. And I’m not even talking about Foster’s moral failings, which are enormous.
Grant Cohn covers the 49ers for The Santa Rosa Press Democrat and Pressdemocrat.com. You can reach him at email@example.com.