Reuben Foster was like a kid on Christmas when he returned to the 49ers following his two-game suspension to begin the season.
“I’m just happy, just happy to be happy-go-jolly,” he said before making his 2018 debut against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sept. 23.
But Foster’s jolly spirit has waned. He’s been in a funk lately because he hasn’t played as well as he did as a rookie.
On Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams, he missed more tackles (three) than he made (one), according to Pro Football Focus, continuing a rut of inconsistency that’s plagued San Francisco’s defense throughout its 1-6 start.
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“I’m down on myself because of injury, but I just have to maintain and know that the storm won’t weather for long,” Foster said Thursday.
Foster has been dealing with recurring issues with his right shoulder, the same shoulder that required surgery before the NFL draft, which has affected his tenacity as a tackler and physicality when trying to shed blocks. He’s been well below average after playing like one of the league’s up-and-coming linebackers last season.
“You got to use your shoulders some for a lot of things,” Foster said. “But I just got to have the right mindset of going into the game and just doing what’s best for my team, really.”
Foster has suffered multiple stingers and worked through a shoulder strain in recent weeks. He’s playing through the pain, but his inability to replicate his high level of play from 2017 is getting to him. It has led to teammates trying to lift his spirits.
“I just talked to him earlier today,” defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. “I told him, ‘Bro, you just got to take it one day at a time. You can’t put too much pressure on yourself. There’s a lot of expectations ... the defense is only going strive as long as our heads are in the right spot.’
“We all got to work together. Because in the long run, it’s 11 guys on the field. It doesn’t fall on one guy, two guys, three guys. It’s everybody. And I just told him that I got his back and it’s something that he really needed to hear. He told me that himself. I feel like there’s no other guy on Sunday I’d rather play with than him.”
Foster was Pro Football Focus’ fourth-highest-graded linebacker as a rookie, joining stars like Carolina’s Luke Kuechly, Seattle’s Bobby Wagner and Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David. Foster flew all over the field and was the team’s best tackler, particularly in open space.
This season, Foster ranks 136th of 162 linebackers in the scouting service’s database and is second among all linebackers with 12 missed tackles, despite missing the first two weeks of the season.
Foster’s locker-room neighbor, veteran cornerback Richard Sherman, has also talked with Foster recently, knowing the struggles that can accompany players entering their second seasons with high expectations.
“You have just got to try to catch a hold of it before it happens,” Sherman said. “Everybody here is (talking about) the rookie wall and then a sophomore slump and things like that. Those things can happen and it can be a slippery slope and you can go downhill in a hurry because you are dealing with not only your performance – and I’m sure he’s his own biggest critic – but you are dealing with other people criticizing you and your family members calling and people sending you articles and things like that.
“So you’ve just got to kind of compartmentalize yourself and keep everything in house and focus on the things you can control and get it better one step at a time. Don’t think you are going to solve every problem in one fell swoop. Take it one step at a time, one game at a time, get better, stack them up.”
The 49ers believe things are looking up the Alabama alum. Foster on Wednesday had his best practice of the season, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said, who remains optimistic Foster will eventually find himself and turn back into a cornerstone for the young roster.
“He’s going to be fine,” Saleh said. “I get it, in this day and age, everything needs to happen now. But, I promise you, Reuben is going to be just fine when this is all said and done. To push the panic button is way, way premature in my mind.”
Saleh said that he thought players faced the most obstacles in their second NFL season because newness of being in the league rubs off — and off-the-field issues become more vast and problematic.
“When they come in as rookies, you have kids who come in and they don’t know anything,” Saleh said. “They’re just locked in on their coach, they’re trying as hard as they can, they want to make a great first impression, they’re out there balling, they know nothing about anything and they’re just running and hitting.
“When they get into their second year they’ve got social media, they’ve got a bank full of money, they’ve got family, they’ve got an entourage, they’ve got a whole bunch of stuff outside, along with what they perceive as more knowledge of football. So, they forget what made them great as rookies in the first place.”
Foster, of course, had a tumultuous offseason that included two arrests and a court case in which he had domestic violence charges against him dropped. He was suspended for violating the league’s personal conduct and substance abuse policies, stemming from marijuana and a weapons possession charge.
Foster was widely considered a top-five draft prospect but fell to pick No. 31 because of questions about his character and his problematic right shoulder, which has proven to be an issue throughout his pro career.
“All I can do is just fight for my team, fight for myself,” Foster said. “This is a game that I love. I’m not going to let a shoulder hold me back. I’m going to rehab it and listen to the coaches and listen to the trainers and see what I need to do to maintain my body and see what’s best for the team.”