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With NaVorro Bowman gone, Reuben Foster steps into bigger role

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- From the moment the San Francisco 49ers used a first-round pick on linebacker Reuben Foster in April's NFL draft, he was always going to become the team's middle linebacker. It wasn't a matter of if but when Foster would replace veteran NaVorro Bowman.

The answer to that question came last week when Bowman was released after taking umbrage with a decrease in his playing time and asked for a trade. And with that, Foster will be asked to move a few feet inside from weakside linebacker to middle linebacker when he returns from a high ankle sprain. That return could happen as soon as Sunday against Dallas.

In making that move, there's not a whole lot that changes in terms of what will be expected from Foster in playing the game. There is, however, one big difference in what is now asked of him on a more macro level.

"Communication," defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. "Getting people lined up, controlling the huddle. There's 10 other guys relying on him to make sure that he's getting the call out of his mouth in the huddle, getting the close calls. He doesn't have to align everybody, but they need to hear his voice. That's the only thing. He's no longer a listener -- he's a communicator."

To this point, Foster has been limited to just 11 snaps in his young career, but the sample he gave everyone in Week 1 against the Carolina Panthers was tantalizing. Some have gone as far as to say he was already the team's best player based on that cameo. To be sure, there's no denying Foster's dynamic ability and charismatic personality.

With Bowman leaving, Foster now has a prime opportunity to do more than just step into Bowman's spot at middle linebacker. He also could step into his spot as one of the faces of the franchise, complete with a full-fledged leadership role.

Is that asking a lot from an unproven rookie? Sure, but coach Kyle Shanahan believes leadership can come from anyone, and those who perform best on the field often set the tone for everyone else.

"I think in order for people to lead, you have to give them a platform to lead," Shanahan said. "I also think that people will only follow people that they respect. The way people respect people in this league is what they put on tape, how they handle themselves on the field, and then how they handle themselves, how they go about their work every single day. ... I don't care if you've been here six months, I don't care if you've been here eight years. It doesn't really matter to me. I think leaders can be all over."

By most accounts, Foster's approach has been in line with what Shanahan and general manager John Lynch were hoping they'd get when they moved back into the end of the first round to acquire him. Even as he's missed almost all of the first six games, Foster has stayed engaged in meeting rooms and on the practice field. Saleh has mentioned how impressed he's been with Foster's approach even as he recovers from injury and with how sharp Foster has been the past couple of weeks as he's returned to practice on a limited basis.

On a team that is still figuring out who its leaders are and will be going forward, Foster isn't afraid to make that more of a priority, but he also echoes his coaches when he talks about where leadership can come from.

"That's every position," Foster said. "You can be a defensive end and a rookie and be a leader, but it's just calling plays and trying to put guys into position [at middle linebacker]."

Saleh also subscribes to that theory but does believe that Foster can help fill the void that Bowman left behind.

"I believe everyone can be a leader," Saleh said. "Servant leadership is the ultimate form of leadership. It doesn't matter how long you've been in the league or how young you are, everyone can serve one another to help everyone around them get better. The Mike linebacker, I get it, he's look at like he's a leader. But, everyone can lead on this football team. Everyone can lead in life. It just depends on what you view as leadership. For me, if you're helping the people around you get better in any form or fashion, that to me is leadership."