NFL draft profile: No. 8 — Alabama LB Reuben Foster, a passionate, explosive playmaker

Alabama LB Reuben Foster
6-foot, 229 pounds

Key stat: In his four seasons, Foster went from 12 tackles to 22 to 73 to 115 in his Butkus Award-winning senior year.

Alabama LB Reuben Foster has injury and character concerns but also great football talent. (AP)
Alabama LB Reuben Foster has injury and character concerns but also great football talent. (AP)

The skinny: Foster endured a rough childhood that included being in his mother’s arms at 18 months old when his father shot her. She survived the shooting, and Reuben suffered a back wound that led to some early health issues. Foster’s father was indicted and fled the law before being captured; after being imprisoned, his father escaped and was on the lam for 16 years before being found again, and the soonest he could be allowed to leave prison is 2035.

Reuben had a daughter when he was in high school — before he committed to Bama — and she’s 8 years old now. He was brought along slowly behind an insanely talented Crimson Tide LB unit and started to break out in 2015 as the part-time starting “Will” linebacker. Foster then dropped about 10-15 pounds prior to the 2016 season and started at one of the inside LB spots in the team’s 3-4 system, and his talents flourished. Now a team captain, Foster started all 15 games despite a slew of physical setbacks (cramping vs. Ole Miss, concussion vs. Arkansas and a hand injury he sustained vs. Mississippi State and re-injured vs. Chattanooga).

Foster skipped the Senior Bowl and was a medical exclusion from the testing portion of the NFL scouting combine following right rotator cuff surgery. During the combine, Foster was sent home from the event following an angry exchange with a medical staff member after he was made to wait several hours late at night at the hospital where the tests are conducted. Foster also was not healthy enough to participate in Bama’s pro day, and there have been conflicting reports about the health of his shoulder following the combine medical recheck, which he was allowed to attend mid-April. Foster reportedly failed a combine drug test with a “diluted sample,” which be blamed on drinking too many fluids following an illness.

Foster recently turned 23 years old.

Best-suited destination: We view Foster as a weakside or inside linebacker in the NFL. He played better at the lower weight as a senior, between 225 and 230 pounds, and would be best served staying in that range provided he can be protected up front by big defensive tackles and can stay healthy. Among the teams that especially could be interested in his services include the Baltimore Ravens (where his mentor, C.J. Mosley, plays), New Orleans Saints, Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, Indianapolis Colts, Oakland Raiders, New York Jets, New England Patriots, Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles.

Upside: Extremely instinctive, passionate and explosive hitter and playmaker. Pops off the tape with jarring hits. Plays with a nasty demeanor and wants to set a tone early in games. Great range and mentality to finish, even when it seems he’s out of the play. Brings fast backs down from behind and the backside. Wraps up and tackles through ballcarriers. Tries to send a message with his hits. Gets low with good knee-bend and uncoils on contact. Carries himself like a 245-pounder, even at reduced weight. Works down the line and flows well. Roots through the trash and finds the ball. Can stack and shed bigger blockers. Has excellent hand work to keep blockers at bay. Few better run stoppers you’ll see than Foster.

Watch him run across the field, take a good angle and crack 210-pound USC RB Justin Davis in the season opener:

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

Also much better in coverage than he’s given credit for. Can single up with tight ends in line or detached. Will track backs out of the backfield and run stride for stride with them in man coverage (see XXXX and Clemson games). Even walked out against certain slot receivers at times — kept glued to USC WR Steven Mitchell Jr., who is 5-10 and 190 pounds, in the opener. Keeps his head on a swivel in zone coverage and can switch gears on a dime. Flexible with loose hips. Can flip his hips and break on the pass in a flash. Times up blitzes nicely, even if that aspect of his game isn’t his greatest strength — still has a clear knack for it.

This is exactly how you dream them up at linebacker — Foster appears born to play the position. A true warrior on the field. Has overcome a lot of adversity off and on the field and carries a survivor’s mentality into work every day. Also has the temperament, athleticism and desire to be an impact special-teamer from Day 1 if asked to do so. Bama radio analyst and Senior Bowl director Phil Savage called Foster a “four-down player” for his ability to stop the run, defend the pass and impact the kicking game.

Downside: Small frame that might not be built for taking a long-term beating. Played with a cast on his hand last season after suffering a bone chip midseason. Has a smaller bone structure and could be susceptible to nagging injuries and nicks throughout his career. Poor tackling form — he’s a head-dropper on impact — could make Foster more prone to concussions, stingers, neck and shoulder injuries, all of which he already has suffered in college. Might not be able to disengage from blocks as easily on the next level because of the size and speed of the players he’ll be facing more consistently. Ran around blocks at times and left his lane to do so.

Hyperactive at times to a detriment. Can overrun plays and be too aggressive. Will get caught out of position in space at times and let tackle attempts slip through his hands or miss entirely. On the flip side, he can get a little unsure of himself and caught watching the paint dry in zone coverage (watch second quarter vs. Clemson). Operated behind one of the best defensive lines in recent college football the past two seasons.

Foster has found himself around distractions throughout his life and might need more maturity and guidance from a well-structured NFL team. Still growing up and might need to be mentored by a seasoned pro. He also was not asked to make defensive calls until this past season. Slow on the whiteboard breaking down plays in meetings with teams. Said to be a gradual learner of X’s and O’s. Could be challenged to completely absorb an NFL defense from soup to nuts right away.

Scouting hot take: “You might have heard me or some other [talent evaluator] use the term, ‘manage their personality’ with a player. It’s something we say, and it’s not necessarily me or anyone saying a guy is a bad person or that we’re some shrinks capable of figuring everything out about someone. But you know, you’ve worked with people who are — shall we say — ‘wired’ a certain way? Yeah, well that’s what Nick [Saban] dealt with with [Foster]. I don’t have anything on my list of things there that, by themselves, would warrant him [as a character reject], just that he was wired a certain way to where the staff had to manage him and keep a very controlled environment for him so that he did not get off track, get distracted, that sort of thing. He’s immature, right? He’s young and he’s immature, despite what [Saban might tell the media]. No arguments. What you tend to see with Bama kids who find trouble is that they tend to do so away from Bama, outside of [Tuscaloosa], so they do a pretty good job of keeping the tent over their heads, so to speak. I think [Foster] is an OK kid who needs a good, solid structure around him, and with the right team he should be fine.” — AFC assistant general manager

Player comp: NaVorro Bowman and Jonathan Vilma

Expected draft range: Top-15 pick

Previous profiles

Nos. 51-100: Here’s who just missed the cut
No. 50: Indiana OG-C Dan Feeney
No. 49: Iowa DB Desmond King
No. 48: Vanderbilt LB Zach Cunningham
No. 47: Wisconsin pass rusher T.J. Watt
No. 46. Alabama pass rusher Tim Williams
No. 45. Washington CB Sidney Jones
No. 44. Alabama LB Ryan Anderson
No. 43. Ohio State WR-RB Curtis Samuel
No. 42. Florida DT Caleb Brantley
No. 41. Connecticut DB Obi Melifonwu
No. 40. USC CB-KR Adoree’ Jackson
No. 39. Texas Tech QB Patrick Mahomes
No. 38. Michigan State DL Malik McDowell
No. 37: Ole Miss TE Evan Engram
No. 36: Florida LB Jarrad Davis
No. 35: Washington S Budda Baker
No. 34: Oklahoma RB Joe Mixon
No. 33: Alabama CB Marlon Humphrey
No. 32: Florida CB Quincy Wilson
No. 31: Tennessee RB Alvin Kamara
No. 30: Michigan DB-RS Jabrill Peppers
No. 29: Alabama OT Cam Robinson
No. 28: Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer
No. 27: LSU CB Tre’Davious White
No. 26: Missouri DE Charles Harris
No. 25: UCLA pass rusher Takkarist McKinley
No. 24: Michigan DE Taco Charlton
No. 23: Wisconsin OT Ryan Ramczyk
No. 22: Utah OT Garett Bolles
No. 21: Western Kentucky OG-C Forrest Lamp
No. 20: Florida State RB Dalvin Cook
No. 19: Miami (Fla.) TE David Njoku
No. 18: Tennessee DE Derek Barnett
No. 17: Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
No. 16: North Carolina QB Mitchell Trubisky
No. 15: Washington WR John Ross
No. 14: Clemson WR Mike Williams
No. 13: Western Michigan WR Corey Davis
No. 12: Temple LB Haason Reddick
No. 11: Ohio State CB Gareon Conley
No. 10: Alabama TE O.J. Howard
No. 9: Stanford RB-WR-RS Christian McCaffrey

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Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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