Bills' Robert Foster finally playing up to vast (and fast) potential

Undrafted rookie receiver Robert Foster is set to surpass his four-year college receiving yardage total after just 10 NFL games. Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP Photo

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Some of Alabama's most well-known prospects of the past decade have taken center stage in the NFL in the past week.

Derrick Henry ran for 238 yards and four touchdowns in the Tennessee Titans' win last Thursday. Kenyan Drake shocked the New England Patriots by completing Miami's last-second miracle Sunday. Amari Cooper and Julio Jones combined for 18 catches, 323 yards and five touchdowns on Sunday.

More quietly Sunday in Buffalo, former Crimson Tide four-star recruit Robert Foster became only the fourth undrafted rookie wide receiver over the past 18 NFL seasons to record multiple 100-yard receiving games. Foster caught seven passes for 104 yards in a 27-23 loss to the New York Jets, continuing his rise up the Bills' depth chart since being signed to the 53-man roster last month.

Foster joined Philadelphia's Hank Baskett in 2006 as well as Jacksonville's Allen Hurns in 2014 and Keelan Cole in 2017 as the only undrafted receivers since 2001 to have multiple 100-yard games as rookies.

Among all NFL players since Week 10, Foster ranks 12th in averaging 82.5 receiving yards per game. Cooper (116.8) ranks third and Jones (99.2) is seventh. Foster's 25.4 yards per catch over that span is the highest among players with a qualifying amount of targets.

If Foster can continue his emergence, it will represent a striking career turnaround for one of the nation's best recruits in 2013, whose time at Alabama and first months in the NFL were marred by injury and disappointment.

Foster was ESPN's 25th-ranked high school recruit in his class, second among receivers and best in his home state of Pennsylvania. He chose Alabama over a litany of offers from other Power 5 schools, including Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan. Henry was the only Alabama commit in 2013 graded higher than Foster by ESPN.

A shoulder ended Foster's sophomore season in 2015 after he caught 10 passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns in the first three games. He returned in 2016 to record only five catches for 55 yards while being overshadowed by top wideouts ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley. After deciding not to transfer, Foster struggled to gain momentum as a senior last season, finishing with 14 receptions for 174 yards and one touchdown.

Foster still received an invitation to the NFL combine in February and ran the third-fastest 40-yard dash among wide receivers at 4.41 seconds, tied with Florida's Antonio Callaway. But he was not drafted in April and chose to sign with Buffalo, who months earlier had hired Brian Daboll as offensive coordinator. Daboll served as Alabama's offensive coordinator in 2017, giving him a first-hand look at Foster and his ideal size of speed and size (6-foot-2 and 196 pounds).

"He has such tremendous speed," Daboll said Monday. "You have to combine the speed with actually being able to play fast and hear the play call and go out there and execute at a fast tempo. Be on the same page with the quarterback, understand all the responsibilities and the route adjustments that come along with playing."

Results did not come initially for Foster, whom the Bills kept on their 53-man roster to begin the regular season instead of exposing him to waivers. Averaging 23 snaps per game in the first four games, Foster caught two passes for 30 yards on nine targets. He also dropped two passes, according to ESPN Stats & Information tracking. In the ensuing two games, Foster played a total of only 10 snaps and was not targeted.

On the Thursday following the Bills' Week 6 loss to the Houston Texans, the Bills waived Foster. Former NFL cornerback and Bills player engagement director Marlon Kerner spent about a half hour talking to Foster on the practice field and, later, in the locker room.

"He told me just continue to work," Foster said. "Embrace this opportunity. It's better to have it now than later. Know how it feels now and what you have to do now to fix what you have to do to become a better player."

Bills second-year coach Sean McDermott put it in plain terms: Foster didn't get it.

"It's not college anymore," McDermott said Monday. "You’re not on scholarship."

Foster spent the next three weeks on the Bills' practice squad, unable to play in games. McDermott believes Foster used the time as a wake-up call, and he spent more time working with rookie first-round quarterback Josh Allen.

The Bills signed Foster back to their 53-man roster on Nov. 10 and saw immediate results. On Nov. 11, he caught a 47-yard pass from fill-in quarterback Matt Barkley and added a 43-yard reception in a 41-10 win over the Jets. That was Foster's first 100-yard receiving game. The next week, Foster caught a 75-yard touchdown from Allen and finished with 94 receiving yards in a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Foster has not dropped a pass on 18 targets since returning to the Bills' active roster and leads the team with 330 receiving yards since his Week 10 promotion. For the season, Foster's 360 yards rank second on Buffalo only to second-year receiver Zay Jones. The two young wideouts now stand atop the Bills' depth chart after the release of Kelvin Benjamin last week.

"The last four weeks for him, he’s done a lot of good things for us," Daboll said Monday. "Certainly, things we’d like to clean up. Had [two offensive pass interference] penalties [Sunday against the Jets], but [he is] another young guy that is coming along."

As for being a top-ranked recruit who underperformed in one of the college's best programs, Foster believes that experience made him more hungry for success in the pros. Foster needs 30 more receiving yards this season to exceed his total production (389 yards) in four seasons at Alabama.

"God works in mysterious ways," he said. "My program was not built to be in college. Maybe it's built to be in the NFL. So I'm embracing what he has given me now."