Reuben Foster continues our series of likely mock draft picks for the Buffalo Bills, a striking linebacker who starred on an Alabama Crimson Tide defense oozing with talent for the past two seasons. Let’s examine this rangy defender.
Foster had a storied high school career that started with a standout freshman performance against future Cleveland Browns running back Isaiah Crowell. Originally attending high school in Troup County, Georgia, Foster moved to his birthplace of Auburn, Alabama, to play his senior season when his high school coach was dismissed.
Foster was the consensus number one inside linebacker recruit in his class, and he had a verbal commitment with Alabama in place. When he moved towns, he switched commitments to Auburn, creating a minor NCAA investigation. Gene Chizik's firing led him to de-commit from that decision, and he eventually re-settled on Alabama.
Foster's mother was shot and wounded by his father when he was just 18 months old. Danny Foster was indicted, but fled the state and later escaped from jail after being arrested. He spent 16 years living in Miami under a false identity, before being discovered and brought to justice.
In college, Foster was part of a storied linebacking corps featuring C.J. Mosley and Reggie Ragland. He took over as a full-time starter as a junior, and won the Butkus Award as the nation's best linebacker in his senior year.
In April 2016, Foster was present (but not involved) at a shooting outside a nightclub in Auburn, Alabama that left three people dead.
Dan: Foster may not measure with the astonishing results of, say, Luke Kuechly, but I think he'll be one of the most athletic linebackers in this year's draft. He moves around the field with the mobility of a three-down linebacker.
Chris: Freakish burst, change-of-direction skills and playing style. Elite straight line speed and bouncy athleticism. Apparently he was up in the 250s in 2015 but played in the mid-230s in 2016, which I think was a smart decision. Sideline-to-sideline, coverage linebackers are ideal in today’s college and pro games. He’s not limited athletically whatsoever.
Adam: Alabama just keeps on churning out NFL-level athleticism. While not the biggest linebacker out there at 6’1” and 236, Foster hits like he’s 25 pounds heavier and moves like he’s 10 pounds lighter. A sideline-to-sideline defender, he’ll have no problem adjusting to the pace of the next level and will make his presence known early. He’s an absolutely thunderous hitter.
Run Defense and Block Shedding
Dan: As a run defender, Foster is an excellent run-and-chase player. While he has trouble disengaging from blockers, he reads his keys very well and can slide through gaps with aplomb. Foster has an outstanding downhill burst and is fast enough toward the sideline that even swing passes and outside zone will be taken down with little or no gain. At times, he shows tremendous instincts for the running game; I witnessed him, in the process of blitzing, deliberately move into the path of a running back heading out for a screen pass, forcing an errant throw by Josh Dobbs that turned into a pick-six by his teammate.
Here’s that play:
Foster is not the most reliable tackler, having a tendency to leave his feet too often. He missed 12.2% of his tackle attempts this season because he didn’t wrap up enough. With him having lost fifteen pounds before the 2016 season to try and improve his speed, I'd like to think a professional training focus might help maximize his arm strength and his mobility.
Chris: Shows some signs of block-shedding ability but not something he relies upon. He typically beats blocks because offensive linemen can’t get to him at second level. Amazing traffic-sifter for many of the reasons listed in the “Raw Talent” section. Foster sees his run fit and attacks it with sheer speed and immense force, and is a somewhat sure tackler. Doesn’t always go all out for the highlight hit, but most of his tackles happen with plenty of pop.
If he sees an opportunity to level a running back, he’ll take it (and typically dive toward the ball-carrier) which did lead to some misses. However, I wouldn’t label him a poor tackler.
Adam: Foster is extremely instinctive, reacting early and with resolve. That said, he doesn’t usually over-commit, as ball fakes and read option plays didn’t seem to end with him out of position. While he does have a slight tendency to get locked up with linemen, he stacks exceedingly well and seems to have more of an issue with shedding blocks quickly. When able to be kept clean, though, he’s a ball seeking missile that will come flying into the backfield or around the corner to make a play. Even when plays end up strung out to the edge, Foster routinely can be seen within ten feet of the ball carrier, if not making the tackle himself. Depending on the system, his position could change, but I think he has the range in run support to play on the weak side.
Here’s a prime showcase of Foster’s speed being used when chasing down a running back from the back side of the play.
Pass Coverage and Fluidity In Space
Dan: Foster has the athletic ability to hold up in coverage. He can put his hands on a receiver to interrupt a pattern, and carries running backs and tight ends through his zone well. I’m not sure what his true upside is in coverage, however. At times, it seemed like Foster was almost too keyed-in on defending the run. Even playing for Alabama, being up by three scores and in obvious passing situations, I would witness Foster biting on play action and not dropping deep enough in coverage on every play. Advanced analytics, however, would suggest that he can be an eraser in this department – He only gave up seven receptions on 21 targets this season. Still, he doesn’t get his hands on very many passes, and has never intercepted a pass in his college career. I’d feel more comfortable asking him to play like DeMario Davis than Luke Kuechly.
Chris: Foster is much more electric downhill and when sprinting across the field, but because he’s such a gifted athlete, he can run with most tight ends, running backs, and even some wide receivers. That’s huge. He shows that ability on wheel and seam routes just a few times at Alabama, as he mostly covered the flat and short zones. Foster has the raw talent to be a top-flight coverage linebacker, when most are limited in some way athletically when they enter the NFL. Because of his change-of-direction skills, he easily drops into coverage and gets quality depth. While he may not be adept at route recognition or route progressions, everything is there for him to make impact plays in coverage as a professional. I don’t expect him to rack up many interceptions right away, but he’ll make plays on the ball if quarterbacks think they can pick on him in man coverage.
Adam: Foster on a wide receiver certainly isn’t a matchup that you’d want to see pre-snap, but I otherwise found him to be surprisingly comfortable in space. He’s no combine hero athletically speaking, but he holds his own in man coverage against most running backs and tight ends, save for those that are particularly fleet of foot. It’s not a strength, but it’s not a liability either.
As for zone coverage, he’s fairly stealthy and has a good feel of the correct depth to lurk at when playing hook and middle zones. He follows the quarterback’s eyes and typically ends up near or at the point of catch. His coverage skills are certainly serviceable, especially when weighed against his ability to stuff the run.
Pass Rushing Aptitude
Dan: Foster was used as a blitzer a few times per game for the Crimson Tide. He would come off the edge but mainly handled A gap blitzes. Foster's speed and snap anticipation did him well on the latter, but he doesn't have the bend or hand-fighting technique to win the former.
Here’s what probably was his best edge rush of 2016:
Chris: At his size, Foster isn’t going to be productive in the NFL as an edge-rusher. Most inside linebackers aren’t. As an A-gap blitzer, the role he found himself in a few times per game at Alabama, he has the speed and athletic talent to thrive. I would have liked to see him create more pressure when blitzing up the middle in college though. From a Bills angle... yes, I’d bet Sean McDermott would love utilizing him on A-gap blitzes because of his quickness and fierce playing style, especially when flying downhill.
Adam: Foster didn’t show up much on the stat sheet at first, with no credited sacks in his first season as a starter in 2015. After tallying five sacks this past season, including one in the championship loss to Clemson, he showed that he can make an impact on passing downs as well. While to my eye they appeared to be more attributable to a high motor, rather than technical superiority, a linebacker that will fight his way to the quarterback like that can play for me any day. A couple came on edge rushes, and a couple came on blitzes, so he doesn’t appear to need any certain scheming to unleash him on the signal caller. All of this becomes more impressive to me when noting that he spent about half of his snaps off of the line, in nickel defense.
Dan: The latest great linebacker prospect to come from Alabama’s incredible defense. Foster has an enticing array of athletic talents, doesn’t measure too small, and hits hard. The main question is if he has the awareness to use that athleticism to its maximum potential in coverage. And hey, when the 2012 draft rolled around, I never thought Kuechly would elevate his game like he did in the pros. Reuniting the Alabama linebackers in Buffalo wouldn't be a bad draft outcome.
Chris: If you know you can keep Foster clean with blockers off him most of the time, you’ll have an inside linebacker or weakside linebacker in a 4-3 with All-Pro potential. Seriously. His inexperience shedding blocks is slightly concerning, no doubt about that, but he doesn’t shy away from contact and because he sifts through traffic so well, it’s not a major issue. Like 99% of linebacker prospects, Foster’s coverage skills aren’t super refined, but his elite athleticism equates to tremendous upside in coverage. He recognizes run plays quicker than most and has the speed and striking ability to routinely make plays near the line of scrimmage. On outside run plays, he’s the classic “sideline-to-sideline” linebacker.
If he learns to not leave his feet as often to make the huge hit, Foster will be an anchor at the second line of some team’s defense. He’d flourish as the weakside guy in McDermott’s 4-3. He’s a missile.
Adam: Reuben Foster is an animal, hitting as hard as any linebacker I’ve seen drafted in a few years now, and it will definitely contribute to him being drafted on day one. After the past few years, I’m a bit wary of ranking ‘Bama players too highly because of the breadth of talent around them. Even knowing that, Foster absolutely deserves to go in the top 15 due to the number of times his play stood out from those around him. Albeit a smaller body, he reminds me of another head hunting linebacker that most of us know quite well - save for the penalties and dangerous aspects of his play.
NFL Player Comparison
Dan: Derrick Johnson
Chris: Ryan Shazier
Adam: Vontaze Burfict