There are few commodities in the NFL more valuable than first-round draft picks, which is among the reasons why the 49ers under coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch took a significant step back over the weekend with the release of linebacker Reuben Foster following his arrest on allegations of domestic violence.
Foster was the second player drafted by the 49ers’ new regime in 2017. He was taken with the 31st overall selection, and the 49ers traded up three spots to pick him.
It was the second trade San Francisco orchestrated in Round 1 of that draft - and it was made possible by the first. The 49ers moved back from pick No. 2 to 3 and took defensive lineman Solomon Thomas. The 49ers landed a fourth-round selection in the trade with the Chicago Bears, which they sent to the Seattle Seahawks for the chance to take Foster.
It looked like a smart deal at the time, albeit one with significant risk. Foster was widely considered a top-10 talent. And if he were to play for the 49ers like he did at Alabama, where he won the Butkus Award as college football’s top linebacker, Shanahan and Lynch were looking at a possible cornerstone player. But Foster failed a drug test at the scouting combine and was sent home following an altercation with a hospital worker, confirming character concerns many talent evaluators had.
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On talent alone, Foster was as gifted as Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. But talent is where those comparisons end. Foster couldn’t get his life together to the point the 49ers could trust him. His arrest in Tampa, at the team’s hotel the night before Sunday’s game against the Buccaneers, was the last piece of evidence.
“He’s gotten better in that way, but it’s been too much. Cared about Reuben, (but) no one’s more important than this team,” Shanahan said Sunday. “The number one rule is you got to protect the team. He’s put us in a bad light too much.”
Why are first-round picks so valuable? They provide the best chance to acquire elite talent at an affordable price.
Rookie salaries are based on draft positioning, last four seasons and are non-negotiable. Contracts for first-round picks have fifth-year options that get picked up before Year 4. Players taken outside the top 10 are paid the average of the 10 highest salaries at the position. That salary is guaranteed for injury only, and it gives teams the flexibility to move on from the player or sign him to a new deal at any point.
Foster’s cap figure for 2018 was $1.95 million, a great price for a high-level player, which he showed signs of becoming as a rookie. The four years of his rookie contract would have paid him just under $9 million, roughly what the league’s 10 highest-paid linebackers make per season.
By cutting Foster, Shanahan and Lynch lost one of their most talented players and a coveted asset: a first-round pick early in his rookie contract. And there’s no way to recoup the value.
So what now?
The 49ers on Sunday split Foster’s playing time between Elijah Lee, a former undrafted free agent, and Malcolm Smith, 29, who signed a five-year, $26.5-million contract just before Foster was drafted and after two underwhelming seasons with the Raiders.
Smith missed all of last season with a pectoral injury and hasn’t lived up to his contract status this season. His guaranteed money runs out after the season, according to Overthecap.com, which could make him a salary-cap casualty when the new league year begins in March.
The good news is in the 2018 draft, San Francisco invested a third-round pick in Fred Warner, who earned the starting “Mike” linebacker job right away. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said the BYU alum had the best pre-draft meeting he had ever been a part of. Warner leads the 49ers in tackles and has played nearly every snap (Foster missed 10 of his 26 games due to injuries or suspension).
Suffice to say, the void left by Foster will likely be addressed in a significant way this offseason, either through the draft, free agency or both. The 49ers are slated to have six draft choices in 2019 after totaling 19 picks in the first two drafts under the new regime.
Their relative dearth of picks will be a talking point once the season ends. The 49ers are in line for the No. 1 pick, which could yield multiple first-rounders in a trade and ease the sting of losing Foster.
But trading out of that pick could be a tough pill to swallow, particularly if Shanahan and Lynch believe someone like Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa can become a star at a position of significant need.
The rebuilding process seemed to be on track when the 49ers won five in a row to end last season with Jimmy Garoppolo under center. But with Garoppolo rehabbing a torn ACL and Foster gone, the new regime has taken a big step back.