Robert Foster did not have the kind of stats in college that scream “NFL future.”
As a redshirt senior wide receiver at Alabama in 2017, he made just 14 catches for 174 yards and one touchdown. The year before, he started just two games, finishing with five catches for 55 yards, making just two starts.
He looked like he was on his way to stardom at the start of the 2015 season, catching 10 passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns in Alabama’s first three games. A shoulder injury in that third game, however, ended his year.
Despite those underwhelming numbers, Foster still received an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine. It was there he established himself as a legit prospect, running a 4.41-second 40-yard dash (third fastest among all receivers), a 4.2-second 20-yard shuttle and a 31-inch vertical leap at 6-foot-2, 196 pounds.
That , and although he went undrafted, Foster has made it to the NFL, signing as a priority free agent with the Buffalo Bills.
“Sometimes you have to just embrace the moment, enjoy the fact that you have an opportunity. Everything’s not always going to go the way you expect,” Foster said after his first practice with the Bills at rookie minicamp Friday. “Regardless of whether you’re a first-round draft pick or a tryout player, it doesn’t matter now. We’re all on equal footing. I want to show these coaches that I’m reliable. If that means playing receiver, playing long snapper, whatever it is … I want the coaches to understand that I can be a player for the Buffalo Bills.”
Foster will get every opportunity to show just that. He joins a wide receiver group in Buffalo that analytics website Pro Football Focus has called the worst in the NFL. There is a big need for a vertical threat who can stretch defenses.
The Bills have a pretty good idea of what they’re getting in Foster. Alabama’s offensive coordinator in 2017, Brian Daboll, left the school to take the same position with the Bills this offseason.
“ ‘Dabs’ had a big influence on that, as well as our scouting department,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “The communication that ensued between ‘Dabs’ and our scouting department, Joe Schoen and his staff as well, you don’t find that all the time, because sometimes, there is a line. For us, our staffs have worked extremely well together, Brandon’s staff, my staff. The firsthand knowledge that Brian had with Foster meant a lot in the process and we’re excited to have him in camp here.”
Foster, however, tried to downplay his relationship with Daboll.
“Me and coach Daboll have somewhat of a relationship, but at the end of the day, that doesn't determine anything,” he said. “I was willing to go anywhere, but I just wanted the opportunity to compete. This was the best opportunity for me. I still have to come out here and compete for a job. This is not college anymore. This is a professional league, so I'm going to approach it like that.”
Like so many other recruits, Foster came to Alabama as a highly decorated high school player. He was a first-team All-American at Central Valley High School in Center Township, Pa., and recruiting service Rivals.com rated Foster as the fourth-best receiver in the 2012 class. Foster redshirted his first season at Alabama.
Under Daboll, the Crimson Tide ran a very rush-heavy scheme in 2017. According to the website teamrankings.com, Alabama threw the ball on just 36.71 percent of its offensive plays, which ranked 111th in the nation. When a pass was called, the intended target was frequently Calvin Ridley, the receiver drafted 26th overall in the first round by Atlanta. Ridley was targeted on 30.9-percent of Alabama’s throws, more than triple anyone else on the team.
That meant the opportunities for Foster, who started 13 of 14 games in 2017, were few and far between.
“Brings elite speed and great route running,” Ridley told alabama.com about Foster in February. “Regardless of his production for us the past few years, I think he will show everyone at the combine truly how talented he is and that he's just as good as anybody else."
“"He's a freakish athlete," Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans said in the same article. "He can do some things that, you'll look at some of these guys at the combine and be like 'OK, they're good,' but then you'll see Robert and be like 'Why isn't he like top five?' ... A lot of people are going to be surprised by what he does."
Foster’s one touchdown in 2017 covered 52 yards. He also caught a season-high three passes in the national championship game against Georgia. Those served as brief glimpses of his potential.
“Regardless of what the production was for me, I still contributed,” he said. “That’s the only thing I really wanted to do, is contribute to a team, whether that’s on or off the field, being a team leader.”
In that same Alabama.com article, it was reported that some teams were actually disappointed Foster received an invitation to the combine, because it meant he would impress teams with his size and speed and there would thus be more competition for his services.
That’s more or less what happened.
"The combine was a great experience. If it wasn't for that, I feel like people wouldn't even really notice me, because I didn't have the college production that I really wanted to,” Foster said. "They gave me the opportunity, and I tried to take advantage of it. Now I'm here with the Buffalo Bills, and happy as ever."