Greg Cosell's NFL Draft Preview: Reuben Foster compares favorably to Patrick Willis

There’s a lot of chatter about Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster, after an incident at the combine and a failed drug test for a diluted sample.

I focus my draft breakdowns on what I see on the tape from each of these prospects. And in that sense, Foster is sensational. He compares well coming out of college to former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis – and I think Foster is a more naturally athletic mover than Willis. Willis was the 11th pick of the 2007 draft, made seven Pro Bowls and was a five-time first-team All-Pro.

I won’t guess how teams will view the off-field news about Foster, but I can tell you that Foster is a top-five prospect and without question one of the elite players in this draft. Since I didn’t see any glaring weaknesses when I watched his film, I’ll list Foster’s strengths, followed by breakdowns of other inside linebackers in this draft:

Reuben Foster compares favorably to Patrick Willis, a seven-time Pro Bowler. (AP)
Reuben Foster compares favorably to Patrick Willis, a seven-time Pro Bowler. (AP)


This play against USC is representative of Foster’s skill set. You see speed and explosion. He plays the run from the inside out. He punishes the running back on the tackle.

Alabama LB Reuben Foster can lay the wood, as he did here against USC. (
Alabama LB Reuben Foster can lay the wood, as he did here against USC. (

What sets Foster apart against the run is the downhill explosiveness to shoot gaps. He also has the ability to play off blocks with physicality and make tackles in the run game. There’s always an innate ability to avoid blocks without abandoning gap integrity and still make the play. But he isn’t afraid to take on blocks. Then he has short-area explosion as a tackler, and a punishing mindset when he does make the tackle. There’s a lot to like about him as a run defender.


Foster’s athleticism stands out as a pass defender. He has excellent speed and sideline-to-sideline range, with both short-area burst and lateral speed. He has quick play recognition and reaction with little wasted movement.

In coverage, Foster has the speed to run down the seam with tight ends and inside slot receivers. That ability to effectively match up man-to-man on tight ends and backs means Foster can play in any defensive package, like Bobby Wagner of the Seattle Seahawks.

Foster also is a very good blitzer and effective on stunts. That adds to his value. He was used in multiple ways in Alabama’s multiple defenses, and excelled in whatever role he was in.

Some believe the importance of a stacked linebacker in today’s NFL game has been lessened, but Foster is a true three-down player who can play and excel in all defensive packages and be a factor against the run and pass. He’s simply one of the best players in this draft class and should make an immediate impact.

Here are breakdowns of other inside linebackers in this class:


Reddick is very intriguing. He has the athletic skill set to align in any linebacker position in either a 4-3 or 3-4 front, with the ability to be effective playing on the ball or off it. He may profile best as a stacked “Will” (weak-side) linebacker in a 4-3 or a weak-side inside linebacker in a 3-4 (which is what Ryan Shazier plays with the Pittsburgh Steelers). But his pass rush ability from the outside is dynamic and explosive, and I think teams will want him rushing the quarterback in sub packages.

Any time you change positions as part of your NFL transition, it makes a projection harder. But Reddick is such a dynamic athlete that a team will be willing to take that chance early in the draft. Not many linebacker prospects have his movement traits.


Cunningham has a long and athletic body (6-3 ½, 234 pounds) and a basketball player’s build with naturally fluid movement traits with flexibility. He’s a read-and-flow stacked linebacker with strong play recognition and an aggressive downhill mentality. He has a tendency to play a little too high at times, and overall doesn’t have a lot of power in his lower body, making him more of a finesse/movement linebacker than a physical one.

I think he’ll be best as a 4-3 “Will” linebacker to take advantage of his length and athleticism. He’s a better overall athlete than De’Vondre Campbell, who started and played in all the sub packages for the Atlanta Falcons as a rookie. Overall, Cunningham’s athleticism and movement along with playmaking traits will fit well in the right scheme.


Davis plays downhill with physicality and aggression. At times he can jar an offensive lineman working to the second level with his physical ability. He could be too aggressive in the box and lose his gap discipline or vision of the runner, but there’s a lot to like about him as an NFL prospect.

Davis could fit in well as a 4-3 “Will” or “Mike” (middle) linebacker, or even as an inside linebacker in a 3-4 (probably the weak-side inside linebacker spot, at 240 pounds). His physical toughness in the box and his ability to play inside-out with plus athleticism and range are desirable traits.

More NFL draft breakdowns from Greg Cosell:
Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
North Carolina QB Mitchell Trubisky
Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer
Texas Tech QB Patrick Mahomes and Cal QB Davis Webb
LSU RB Leonard Fournette
Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey
Oklahoma RB Joe Mixon

Florida State RB Dalvin Cook
Clemson WR Mike Williams

Western Michigan WR Corey Davis
Texas A&M DE Myles Garrett and the defensive line class
Alabama TE O.J. Howard and the tight end class
Washington WR John Ross and the receivers class
Michigan DB Jabrill Peppers and the defensive backs class

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NFL analyst and NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell watches as much NFL game film as anyone. Throughout the season, Cosell will join Shutdown Corner to share his observations on the teams, schemes and personnel from around the league.

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