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Reuben Foster returns to 49ers workouts

SANTA CLARA - Reuben Foster didn’t practice with the 49ers Wednesday afternoon. He practiced next to them on a side field, under the supervision of the team’s head strength and conditioning trainer, Ray Wright.

Foster shuffled left and right over raised pads that looked like speed bumps, shuffled back and forth, back and forth. He did the typical warmup routine for the 49ers’ inside linebackers, and did it alone.

Wednesday was Foster’s first practice this offseason in front of the media. He joined the 49ers for OTAs last Thursday after a judge dismissed three felony charges against him. The 49ers did not make him available to speak on Wednesday.

“He is in great shape,” said 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh after practice. “He could have went today. He could have went the first day he was allowed back. But, just like all the other guys, they’ve had a due process, a Phase 1, Phase 2, going through all the different phases of the offseason. We’re just giving him a chance to get back into it. Don’t rush him. There’s no need. Hopefully, we can get him practicing soon.”

In Foster’s case, Saleh’s use of the term “due process” was certainly appropriate.

Foster, 24, was arrested in Alabama on Jan. 13 and charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana. Then, on Feb. 11, he was arrested in Santa Clara and charged with three felonies: domestic violence, attempting to prevent a witness from reporting a crime and possession of an illegal assault rifle.

But, on May 23, a judge dropped the domestic violence charges and reduced the weapons charge to a misdemeanor. And on May 25, the Tuscaloosa District Attorney’s office dismissed the misdemeanor marijuana charge. That entire process, the 49ers hope, will put Foster’s legal problems to rest.

“We’re all excited,” Saleh said. “The whole organization matches Reuben’s enthusiasm, and not just because of Reuben the player. Reuben the person, for people who don’t know him and who don’t have the privilege to know him (and) really don’t understand what a great human being he is.”

Johnny Holland, the 49ers’ outside linebackers coach and run-game specialist, described Foster’s personality: “It’s infectious. He has a glow about him. He is very likeable. He tries to do things right, but somehow he gets caught sometimes doing the wrong thing.

“This is not college football, not high school football. Your identity is known. People know what you do, and you’re not going to get away with stuff. He went through a learning phase as a first-year pro. This is his second year now, so he’s got to be able to step up and make good decisions.”

And he’s got to stay healthy. Foster’s biggest issues as a rookie were injuries, not arrests.

“He was hurt from the beginning with the shoulder injury, had to sit out,” Holland said. “And the first game of the season, he had a high-ankle sprain and missed six games. For the 10 games he played in, I thought he was outstanding. He was one of the top-four linebackers in the NFL as a rookie learning a new system. His ceiling is very high. He is going to be better this year.”

Foster missed OTAs and minicamp last season as he recovered from rotator-cuff surgery on his right shoulder. Then he missed six games with a high-ankle sprain. And then he missed portions of another six games as he routinely injured himself while making tackles.

“We really want to hone in on the safety part of his tackling,” Holland said. “In this game here, we teach our guys to keep their head out. We want to be safe with our players. He’s a violent player who throws his head in and knocks himself out, hurts his neck. We want to make sure he’s safe and not hurting other players.”

The 49ers’ new linebackers coach, DeMeco Ryans, said Foster can protect himself by using his hands to engage blockers, instead of simply barreling shoulder-first into them. Improper hand usage is Foster’s only weakness, according to Ryans. Well, that and injuries.

“He’s a much better player than I was,” said Ryans, a two-time Pro Bowl linebacker who played in the NFL from 2006 to 2015. “For Reuben, it’s just being consistent. As a pro at this level, you have to be consistent. Can you consistently do the same things over and over again?

“For Reuben, it’s just being able to practice and be on the field. I think Reuben is really a dynamic player, a great player. You’ll see great in him this year, Year 2 in the system, him understanding the scheme and what we’re trying to do. He has a really good grasp of it. He’s a really smart guy, smart player.”

As Foster masters the 49ers’ defense, the team could move him from weakside linebacker, the position he played last season, to middle linebacker, which is more difficult. Middle linebackers communicate play calls to the rest of the players on the defense. Weakside linebackers communicate nothing. They don’t have to talk.

Reporters asked Saleh, Holland and Ryans if the 49ers will move Foster to the middle when he fully returns to practice. Is that their plan?

“We just need him on the field,” Ryans said, speaking for the team.

Good plan.

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