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Will the Saints Take a Chance With “Risky Reuben”?

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

For the New Orleans Saints, the very idea of taking a "risk" with their #11 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft in exactly one week from tonight, is a very scary proposition. However, as is the case sometimes, a high risk comes with an even higher reward.

There's a famous saying that tells us essentially that sometimes life is all about taking risks, to get what you truly and really want.

And if you're the Saints, then you want to fix your defense --- a defense that most everyone in the world of Pro Football would agree is THE reason why New Orleans has finished 7-9 for 3 straight years --- and has missed the NFL Playoffs in all three of those years as well.

Which is why the very thought of actually passing up the chance to take one of the Draft's very best and top available players on the defensive side of the football, is even a greater risk.

That could be the dilemma that the Saints will be facing once they're officially "on the clock" next Thursday Night during the 1st Round of the Draft in Philadelphia.

Just a few short weeks ago, University of Alabama middle linebacker Reuben Foster was generally considered to a Top 5 pick, and the consensus #1 middle linebacker in the 2017 Draft class. But quite a bit has changed since then.

A feared and very hard-hitting, bone-rattling tackler, the 2016 Butkus Award winner for the nation’s top linebacker and a first-team All-American racked up 115 tackles last season; good for 2nd-most in the SEC and in the entire nation behind Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham. Out of those 115 total tackles, 13 of them went for loss -- and he also managed to add a total of 5 sacks to his credit as well.

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

But Foster's "dream season" and college career in Tuscaloosa ended on a sour note, as the Crimson Tide failed to win back-to-back National Championships despite his single-game career high for tackles (12) in this past season’s title game loss vs. Clemson.

Unfortunately for Foster, his fortunes seem to have gotten worse since that night.

Foster required rotator cuff surgery following Alabama’s season, so he was unable to work out either at the NFL Scouting Combine early last month, or at Alabama’s Pro Day later in that same month.

Then just this past week, a report surfaced stating that Foster’s shoulder still hasn't healed fully from the first surgery in January, and he now could require a SECOND surgery.

Foster’s representative and professional agent Malki Kawa quickly denied the report and then proceeded to tell reporters that Foster was “ahead of schedule” and will in fact be ready for a NFL Training Camp in a few months from now in late July.

Whether or not you believe Foster or his agent, there isn't any question that Foster’s health will be a topic of conversation among NFL executives and front office personnel men in the very moments leading up to the start of the Draft, as they try to determine just where he is at physically.

However as it turns out, Foster's health right now is the least of his concerns.

That's because there are persistent rumors out there which insinuate that teams are hesitant to take Foster now over concerns that have arisen over his football IQ --- and his ability to understand and mentally comprehend a defensive playbook; the very same problems that allegedly have plagued Saints 2015 1st Round pick Stephone Anthony.

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

Sports Illustrated writer Robert Klemko reported that Foster had trouble back at his Pro Day a few weeks ago with diagramming plays on a dry-erase board for NFL scouts in a team meeting room, prompting some who were there to question Foster’s ability to adequately understand how to successfully defend the plays run by high-powered NFL offenses.

From Klemko’s story, this is the paragraph that allegedly has many teams suddenly now deciding to distance themselves from Foster.

The major concern with Foster for NFL teams, beyond the off-field questions, is his ability to absorb a playbook. Foster has struggled in interviews with teams who ask him to draw concepts with X’s and O’s. “I’ve been working to get better,” Foster says. “Other people learn different, other people have ADHD, or have a learning disorder. X’s and O’s on boards is hard to do for me. I second-guess myself.”

Klemko’s warning raises a lot of “red flags” for many observers, and given the Saints’ current experience surrounding Stephone Anthony — who apparently has struggled with a similar issue since the Saints selected him with the #31 overall pick in 2015 — it’s a possible situation that perhaps the Saints won’t want to find themselves having to go through once again.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban has tried to give teams reassurances that Foster can overcome any such learning deficiencies, telling Klemko that Foster performs best when watching film and learning on the field. “If you put on the film he’ll be able to tell you chapter and verse because that’s how he learned it”, Saban told Klemko.

Foster was already looked at by NFL scouts and front office personnel as being a potential “attitude problem” in the locker room (and possibly getting in trouble off the field as well), after his much-publicized incident at the NFL Combine where he engaged in a heated argument with a hospital employee while waiting in the long line for medical tests at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital.

So the recent ‘dry-erase board issues’ have only added to the craziness surrounding one of the 2017 Draft class’s most talented players.

However, it was reported that New Orleans just last week brought Foster in for a pre-Draft visit with the team's coaching staff at the Saints Training Facility in suburban Metairie; and it's been said by one more than one analyst recently including Bleacher Report's Matt Miller that the Saints are very intrigued with the idea that a player with Foster's undeniable talent could still be available when they pick at #11.

Said Miller:

"The New Orleans Saints are in "win-now" mode, according to a front office source. With the No. 11 pick, the team would love to see Alabama's Reuben Foster on the board, I've been told."

So with all of that in mind, here’s the biggest question as far as New Orleans is concerned: would the Saints REALLY “pass” on Foster, if he falls down to #11? Or, will they be willing to take the risk; knowing that as long as his health turns out okay, that they can then grab one of the Draft's very best players --- a player who they didn't expect to still be sitting there at #11 just a few weeks ago?

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

As of this very moment, the only thing that seems to be standing in the way of Foster being available when the Saints pick at #11, is the team with the #9 overall pick: the Cincinnati Bengals.

If the Bengals -- who are also trying to improve their defense -- decide that Foster isn't the player they want (the Bengals are also said to be heavily interested in Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett, another player who's been considered a top Saints draft target), then there isn't any doubt whatsoever that Foster will be available for the Saints when they make the pick at #11.

It’s just very hard to envision the Saints passing on a player who many consider to be one of the best overall players in the entire Draft; a player who’s considered a “game changer” and an All-American that many of those same NFL scouts say is the best “pure” linebacker of this Draft class.

Sports Illustrated's Chris Burke says that Foster's speed/strength combo should translate well to the pros. Burke says that nothing about Foster’s game is hesitant. When he makes a read, he trusts it, and then drives toward his target with maximum velocity.

Burke says that Foster has the range to be a chase-and-tackle defender working sideline to sideline, but he might be even better when he can spot a gap and fire downhill.

Burke also adds that Foster projects across all schemes, and at multiple spots—he could be an ILB in a 3–4, or an MLB or weak-side defender in a 4–3. There should be no hesitation with regard to fit for any team considering him in the draft, which obviously is very good news if you're the Saints.

And Burke notes: EVERY single hit that Foster makes has the potential to land on the "highlight reel".

The dilemma for the Saints is that they have to still be a bit wary given that they were just recently “burned” by the Stephone Anthony pick (remember: Anthony was also considered by many to be the best “pure” linebacker of that 2015 class), and they're likely hesitant to re-live that experience again just 2 short years later.

And then of course, there's the likelihood that the Saints could simply just decide to address another team 'need' that they consider to be greater than middle linebacker, such as an edge rusher / defensive end (which many analysts feel is the direction the Saints will ultimately go) or cornerback, and even an offensive player isn't totally out of the question.

But the bottom line is that Foster is a potential future All-Pro who could anchor your defense for a decade or more, making him a player that is almost impossible to simply ignore and overlook in favor of another player.

Just yesterday in his Mock Draft for Pro Football Focus, analyst and former NFL player / current NBC announcer Cris Collinsworth had Foster going to the Saints at #11; and said this regarding why he had Foster projected to New Orleans at that spot:

11. New Orleans Saints

Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama

It’s always hard to pass on receivers when I’m picking for New Orleans — Mike Williams or Corey Davis would be fun to watch in this offense — but the Saints have to take defense, right? If there is a spot for Foster, this is it. The league has changed, and cover linebackers that don’t have to come off the field on third down are so valuable to continuity on the defensive side of the ball. As one defensive coordinator once told me, teams don’t lose games on run plays — they lose on passing plays. Foster will fly sideline to sideline and cover backs and tight ends. He can flip his hips like a cornerback in coverage. The former Alabama standout is a flashy prospect that plays with a lot of emotion, and should be a fan favorite in New Orleans for years to come. I hope the combine incident was an aberration.

PFF Draft Pass Stat: Led all FBS linebackers with a run-stop percentage of 16.3 in 2016.

With the opening night of the 2017 NFL Draft only 7 days away, the Saints front office brass have a lot of things to think about.

And without question, one of the topics of conversation no doubt will b about just what they should do if and when Reuben Foster "falls" to them at #11.

Photo courtesy of the Birmingham News

Do they take the risk?

Or do they decide that in the end, the risk just isn't worth taking.

In one week's time from tonight, we'll finally have our answer......

Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist and Lead Analyst Barry Hirstius is a 50-year old semi-retired journalist and former New Orleans area sports editor and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints NFL football team. Additionally, he is a frequent guest on a variety of Sports Talk Radio programs that cover the Saints. Barry is also a New Orleans native that dating all the way back to his childhood in the early 1970's, attended games at the old Tulane Stadium and grew up as a long-time Saints fan; following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.......

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