49ers to give Foster, Armstrong fair shot at starting LB job

Two candidates have emerged for the starting weak-side linebacker position at 49ers training camp after presumed starter Malcolm Smith was placed on season-ending injury reserve Monday morning.

In what has now turned into the most interesting battle of camp, rookie sensation Reuben Foster and five-year veteran Ray-Ray Armstrong are the pair that will be battling for the starting role. But as the team is unwilling to name a set-in-stone starter for week one of the preseason, both players are expected to get an equal opportunity to present their case to defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and company.

Monday saw Foster trot out on the field with the first team defensive unit for the first time during training camp. Taking 100 percent of the reps with that group, Foster was given the first crack at the week-long job interview. According to Saleh, however, Foster going first doesn’t mean much in regards to leverage for the spot:

“It’s still training camp and we’re still in the evaluation process. Reuben got first dibs today with the (starters). You’ll see Ray-Ray get some reps with the (starters) tomorrow so it really doesn’t mean anything.”

That message was apparently clear to Foster, too, as he talked about the chance to compete for a starting job:

“I took most of the reps with the first team. … It’s meaningful but in this league you have a lot of great players behind you also, so of course I’m not going to just step ahead and be like ‘I’m with the (starters).’ I’m just going to look at it like a learning process and still take it and learn.”

Armstrong also echoed this sentiment when asked if he thought he would get a fair shot:

“No doubt. Obviously (Foster) is a first-round pick, but I go out there and compete every day just like everybody else and just let the coaches make that decision.”

While it’s good to see everyone on the same page, the question now being asked is what each player brings to the table. Saleh commented on this topic and gave a bit of analysis for both Foster and Armstrong:

“I think they’re both good in run and pass, maybe I’m being a little biased as a coach, I think they both have great strengths. We’re so detailed in our run game that I think they’ll both be good in the run. We’re so specific in our coverage, they’ll both be good in coverage. … It comes down to production and who people making plays and doing things the right way and fundamentally being sound.”

For Foster, a clear strength in his game is in the running and pass rushing game. As a former member of Nick Saban’s system at the University of Alabama, much of Foster’s success came from sniffing out run plays and making life hard for opposing quarterbacks.

The use of instinct is a key component to Foster’s game but at times has caused him trouble during training camp. One example of this came in the first few days of camp in which Foster was duped into rushing the quarterback on a screen play that wound up gaining roughly 30 yards. Head coach Kyle Shanahan mentioned this the next day, chalking the mental lapse up to a rookie moment.

He later mentioned that they ran the same play at him the following practice in which Foster stayed home and subsequently snagged an interception. Saleh talked about the uncanny ability for Foster to learn from his mistakes on Monday as well:

“(Foster has) had flash plays and he’s had busts… But at the same time, he’s been asked to learn a lot in a very short amount of time. So for Reuben, it’s just a matter of getting those reps. And what’s great about him is that when he sees it once, he’s good. Even if he’s made a mistake he be able to recoup and gather himself back up.”

In Armstrong’s case, his strongest asset is experience. Having bounced around the league during his four previous seasons in the NFL, Armstrong has faced his fair share of offenses. That coupled with the fact that he played next to fellow 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman makes Armstrong a great option if continuity is a concern.

The other aspect of Armstrong’s game that would vastly benefit the team if he lands in the starting role is his play in pass coverage. As a former defensive back, Armstrong has the knowledge and wherewithal to cover tight ends and running backs in the middle of the field. Being that he has never been a pass-rushing specialist, this might allow Bowman to concentrate on his own pass rushing if the two happen to lineup together come September.

As the 49ers approach their first preseason game of the season on Friday in Kansas City, all eyes will be on the pair of linebackers to see who will gain the upper hand. But even though the competition is fierce, the two do not expect it to effect their relationship as teammates according to Foster:

“Ray-Ray’s my dog. Ray-Ray’s the number one dude who keeps me laughing at the meetings and keeps me up. If Ray-Ray gets in a position, hey, he earned it. But if I get it, I earned it and he would support me like I would support him. It’s no hard feelings.”