Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports



Following the torn pectoral muscle suffered by linebacker Malcolm Smith, the competition for the starting weak-side linebacker job has effectively become a two-man race. Smith was placed on injured reserve on Monday and is very likely to miss the entire 2017 season. That leaves rookie Reuben Foster competing with Ray-Ray Armstrong for the spot. However, that doesn't mean the two aren't willing to help each other along the way.

Both players met with the media following Monday's practice session, which was the ninth of training camp. Foster got an opportunity to work with the first-team defense during team drills. However, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh stressed that no one should read into it too much. There is still a lot of time left in the evaluation process and Monday just happened to be Foster's turn to work with the top unit.

"Reuben got first dips today with the ones," Saleh said. "You'll see Ray-Ray get some reps with the ones. It really doesn't mean anything today."

Saleh went on to explain that, while Foster has been a fast learner, he still is not immune to mistakes on the practice field and he will improve as he gets more reps.

Foster discussed his great relationship with Armstrong amid the competition and how each will be supportive no matter who wins the starting job.

"Ray-Ray's my dude," Foster said. "He keeps me laughing in the meetings and keep me up. If Ray-Ray gets the position, he earned it. If I get it, I earned it and he will support me like I will support him and there's no hard feelings. It's a job. You want to see what's best for your teammates, not for yourself. You want to see what's best for the organization, not for yourself."

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On Friday, with NaVorro Bowman having the day off and an injury to Brock Coyle, Foster had an opportunity to practice on the first-team defense while calling the plays from the Mike position. Head coach Kyle Shanahan said the Mike position is similar to where Foster has been practicing with just some communication differences. The coaching staff wanted to see how he would handle those differences. Foster feels that he is versatile enough to play at any linebacker spot.

"You can put me at Sam linebacker, I'm playing it," Foster said. "Let me play anywhere. It doesn't really matter to me. But if Ray gets it, I'm all for Ray. If I get it, I'm all for me and Ray, whatever. We're going to interchange the thing. We're going to make it work."

Armstrong has a similar view of the competition and believes in helping his teammates in order to make the team stronger.

"You're in competition with everybody in your position group," Armstrong said. "He's a player on our team. We're willing to help him out at any chance I get. There's no bouncing back back-and-forth on who's going to start and who's not going to start. We're all here to help each other."

There are usually a lot of high expectations on first-round picks – especially those with as much perceived talent as Foster. The expectation is that he will become the starting weak-side linebacker at some point early in the season, if not at the start. However, Armstrong feels that, despite the expectations for Foster, he will get a fair shot at the job from the coaching staff.

"I go out there and compete every day just like everybody else and then let the coaches make that decision when it's time," Armstrong said.

On Friday, general manager John Lynch said it will be difficult to keep Foster off of the field but the rookie linebacker will have to earn his role on the 49ers defense.

"Reuben will appreciate it more if he has to earn it and he's doing his best to do just that," Lynch said.