With the free-agent signing period scheduled to begin in a month, it is clear the 49ers must make a decision on Reuben Foster.
It does not have to be a dramatic decision. After all, it appears the 49ers are willing to take their time to let the investigation unfold before determining whether Foster will still hold a spot on the team’s roster.
The 49ers must approach free agency and the draft as if Foster is a person who can no longer be counted upon to be a long-term member of the organization.
Foster talked multiple times on the phone and in person on Monday with 49ers general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan, according to a source. He is also said to be cooperating fully with the investigation – both at local law enforcement and NFL levels.
The 49ers acted swiftly a year ago when Lynch and Shanahan were faced with a decision after Tramaine Brock’s arrest after an alleged domestic incident. Shortly after meeting with Brock, the organization released Brock. (Brock did not face formal criminal charges after the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office concluded it lacked sufficient evidence to seek prosecution.)
The organization has not been as decisive with Foster, a player in whom the 49ers invested a first-round draft pick to acquire. It appears as if the 49ers believe there are enough unknowns and gray area to let the situation play out.
Foster is under investigation after he was arrested Sunday morning in Los Gatos on charges of domestic violence, threats and possession of an assault weapon. Foster’s girlfriend accused him of dragging her during an argument, the Bay Area News Group reported, citing sources familiar with the investigation. The alleged victim told investigators Foster threw her belongings onto a walkway and balcony before the incident in which Foster dragged her, according to the report.
The 49ers, at this stage, have two options: Do nothing or cut him.
Any potential discipline is covered in the league’s collective bargaining agreement under the NFL’s policies on personal conduct or substances of abuse. The 49ers – or any team – are prohibited from punishing a player if the situation is covered under those policies.
The 49ers’ offseason program is scheduled to begin on April 16. If Foster is still with the organization at that stage, the 49ers could ask – not demand – that he stay away from the program if his case remains unresolved.
More than likely, though, they would not try to keep Foster away from the team. He appears to be an individual who needs structure in his life. It is likely the 49ers would think it would be more beneficial to him to have a support system around him.
But there is no way of knowing at this stage what the investigation will produce and whether the 49ers can justify retaining Foster on their team. But, from a football standpoint, it does not matter.
Even if Foster remains on the team, the 49ers have to approach this offseason as if he will not be available for all 16 games.
The personnel department has look to strengthen the roster as if Foster will never play another down of football for the organization.
That means, the 49ers will look to re-sign middle linebacker Brock Coyle, who played well late in the season as the starter alongside Foster. Veteran weakside linebacker Malcolm Smith is expected to return to full strength after missing last season with a torn pectoral.
But the 49ers must not stop there. They must look to add another veteran inside linebacker in free agency and select a talented young player in the draft. The 49ers do not have to select an inside linebacker with their first pick at No. 9 or No. 10 overall. After all, talented inside linebackers can be found at all levels of the draft. But the 49ers must pinpoint some players who can potentially start as rookies.
From the moment the 49ers traded up to select Foster with the No. 31, they envisioned him as being a dynamic, game-changing player for a long time.
But, no longer can they look at him as someone who will be a cornerstone for a long time. Regardless of what the investigation uncovers, the 49ers must take the mindset this offseason that he will never make another tackle for them.