People drew the parallels shortly after the San Francisco 49ers drafted Reuben Foster. Memories of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman wrecking opposing offenses resurfaced. The hope that Foster might be the next great linebacker in franchise history tantalized fans.
A week of training camp domination with the third-team defense continued to build the hype surrounding San Francisco's first-round pick. An injury over the weekend might accelerate the franchise's timeline with Foster.
Malcolm Smith's season-ending pectoral tear already has the rookie playing with the first-team defense. Foster spent Monday's practice at Bowman's hip and was later listed as the starting weak side linebacker in the team's unofficial depth chart.
Robert Saleh attempted to quell speculation that any lineup decisions had been made. Ray-Ray Armstrong is still in the mix to start.
"It's still training camp so we're still in the evaluation process," Saleh said on Monday. "Reuben got first dibs today with the ones. You'll see Ray-Ray get some reps with the ones. It really doesn't mean anything today."
Even so, it's hard not to see the writing on the wall. The future may be now in San Francisco. Beyond Foster's three interceptions, the linebacker also has three sacks with the first-team defense. He has the swagger to match his elite athleticism.
When you watch No. 56 patrol the field, it's easy to forget that he's still yet to play in an NFL game. Those reps are coming.
"You know, he's had flash plays and he's had busts that a common person won't notice," Saleh said. "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. What's great about him is that when he sees it once he's good. So, even if he's made a mistake he'll be able to recoup, re-gather himself back up."
Foster echoed the sentiments of his coach. Mistakes are inevitable, but the linebacker focuses on learning from each miscue.
"I'm ready, but there's more room to improve," Foster said. "You can't make (the same) mistake twice. You've got to learn from your mistake. You've got to move on to the next play and learn from it."
Saleh hopes that Smith will still be a factor from a mentorship standpoint. The injured linebacker was in attendance on Monday and helping Foster from the sideline. Smith and Bowman will be invaluable resources for Foster.
"Malcolm was by my side telling me what to do. Bo was really staying on me (as well)," Foster said. "It builds poise and confidence knowing where you need to be.
"It's hard to see one of my brothers go down. I'm going to try my best to hold it down for him and for the team."
Foster's next test will come during Friday's preseason opener against the Kansas City Chiefs. It will be an opportunity to prove that his confidence and production can carry into game.
"With Malcolm going down, it changes a lot of my mindset," Foster said. "I'm trying to be a better teammate and keep studying – keep learning from film.
"I've grown a lot. It's me getting back into football shape with a football mentality."