John Lynch came out of his first draft as an NFL general manager with two of the top three players on San Francisco’s board and a couple of extra picks to boot.
The rookie general manager would have had a hard time scripting the day any better. He traded down one spot to No. 3 to get Stanford defensive lineman Solomon Thomas and then packaged one of the extra picks from that deal with his own second-rounder to get Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster at 31.
“We got two of our top three players,” Lynch said. “We’re thrilled. We’re ecstatic. We think these guys have traits that encompass what we want to be about as a football organization.”
The trading started when Chicago wanted to move up one spot to select quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. With other teams interested in that pick, the Niners were able to get extra picks in the third and fourth round this year and a 2018 third-rounder and still draft their second-highest rated player in Thomas.
“There were other people involved,” Lynch said. “The trade improved the last day because of that.”
Then when Foster started slipping possibly because of concerns about his injured shoulder and off-field character issues, San Francisco started making calls midway through the round to get an additional first-round pick.
They were finally able to move from 34th to 31st by sending the fourth-round pick acquired from Chicago to Seattle and added the Butkus Award winner to their defense. Coach Kyle Shanahan said Foster’s play jumped off the film every time he studied Alabama’s defense.
“No matter who I was studying and watching, No. 10 was flying around passing everybody up,” Shanahan said. “No matter who I studied. I had a hard time not watching No. 10, which was Reuben. The way he plays, the way he hits, the way he runs, that’s why you want him on your team.”
Although he was once projected as a potential top-five pick, his stock fell because of a shoulder injury, a positive drug test for a diluted urine sample and an argument with a hospital worker at February’s scouting combine that resulted in his ejection. Foster also has been recovering from a right shoulder injury, which he said is now 90 percent healed and should be back at full strength in time for training camp.
To feel comfortable taking Foster, the Niners put in a lot of work. He met with them at the combine and was the team’s first pre-draft visitor in March. Coach Kyle Shanahan and Lynch both also spent time talking to Foster on the phone and via FaceTime. When things got more serious, they sent vice president of football affairs Keena Turner and team chaplain Earl Smith to Tuscaloosa to meet with Foster for two days.
“We were exhaustive in getting to know the kid,” Lynch said. “It felt genuine. That’s something we loved about Reuben is that he’s really genuine, he’s got a smile that lights up a room, and the way he plays football is special.”
As Foster’s slide continued, the Niners began calling just about every team in the league to move up to get him, according to Lynch. He said the calls began in the teens and didn’t stop until the Niners surrendered the fourth-round pick they acquired from the Bears to move the three spots necessary to land Foster.
For his part, Foster was excited to land in San Francisco even after his surprising fall.
“I’m trying to be the great, the next Patrick Willis, the next great linebacker in their history,” Foster said. “I was very surprised. I thought I wasn’t going to make it. I thought I wasn’t going to make it, but I’m just happy that they just believed in me and just trusted in me and to pick me and just give me a chance.”
The Niners expect Foster to come in and compete for a starting linebacker job right away. He’s likely to get a look at inside linebacker, though Shanahan says he believes some combination of Foster and NaVorro Bowman will handle the inside and weak side linebacker spots in tandem. Competition throughout the spring and summer will determine who lines up where.