By Ben Cooper, Pro Football Focus
For the first six weeks of the 2018 NFL season, undrafted rookie wide receiver Robert Foster appeared to be what his title suggested – a long shot at becoming a meaningful contributor to the Buffalo Bills’ offense.
He saw just three catchable targets, two of which he hauled in for 30 yards. His snap count diminished from 29 in Week 2 to just two in Week 6, and the Bills subsequently released the former Alabama receiver.
The Bills signed him to the practice squad and he eventually made his way back to the 53-man roster. From there, Foster has thrived at the level of the league’s best pass-catchers. In his past five games – since Week 10 – Foster’s 83.6 overall grade has been topped by only six other wideouts – an elite group of T.Y. Hilton, Keenan Allen, DeAndre Hopkins, Davante Adams, Amari Cooper and Michael Thomas.
Since his return, Foster has yet to see less than than 30 snaps in a game (including a career-high 73 against the New York Jets) and has posted three 100-yard receiving performances. When looking deeper into his resurgence, it’s apparent that he feeds off Josh Allen’s ability to extend plays and stand tall in the pocket.
Of Foster’s 23 targets in that span, 11 have been on attempts of 20 or more yards and seven have been caught, trailing only Tyreek Hill and Hilton. Foster’s route breakdown lines up with those chunk gains, as he’s been targeted on eight go routes and four crossing routes since Week 10, averaging 42.7 yards and 37.8 yards per reception, respectively, on each.
Few pass-catchers have come close to matching his combined 3.65 yards per route run, which is the highest in the six-week stretch. Few pass-catchers also have come close to providing as daunting a deep target as Foster.
Both of Foster’s touchdowns have come on crossing routes. His 75-yard score on a deep catch-and-run in Week 12 was courtesy of a dime from Allen despite a collapsing pocket. And his 42-yard go-ahead score Sunday came on a seven-step drop from Allen, which allowed the deep route to flourish. Although both touchdowns were helped by a large amount of separation, Foster has also flashed an ability to catch in traffic — two of his seven deep receptions came on contested throws.
Crossing routes inevitably take time to develop — the receiver has to “cross” from one side of the field to the other. But despite quarterback Allen being pressured on 45.8 percent of his dropbacks, the highest rate in the NFL, he leads the league in average time in the pocket and average time to throw. Having a rookie who is as comfortable as Allen seems to with stepping up in the pocket and making throws with defenders in his face has been crucial to Foster’s emergence as a deep threat. As such, Allen has found Foster for four catches on four targets on crossing routes.
It's been a similar story on go routes, where, while the connection hasn’t been as tight, there hasn’t been a shortage of attempts. Foster ranks in the top-10 in go route targets since Week 10, and his three catches on those routes have gone for an astounding 128 yards.
Foster's efforts have culminated in a 144.7 passer rating when targeted over the span, which ranks fifth among receivers with 16 or more targets. He’s had just three negatively graded passing snaps compared to 16 positively graded ones (with the rest being even grades).
At the college level, Foster saw little success on minimal targets. He never surpassed 200 yards in any of his four seasons at Alabama and frequently caught two or fewer passes a game. It was no surprise he went undrafted, but Foster has provided the team with a deep option who, on the season as a whole, is second among wide receivers with 53.1 percent of his targets coming on passes of 20 or more yards downfield. It’s something the Bills haven’t had since Sammy Watkins in 2015, and it’s a positive sign moving forward in 2019.
If there’s any other point to make about what Foster brings to the Bills offense aside from the deep ball, it’s simply consistency. The Bills’ wide receiver corps has the lowest catch rate (50.8 percent) in the NFL — partly at the fault of Allen, who has the lowest adjusted completion percentage (64.3 percent) among quarterbacks, partly because they have started four different quarterbacks, among other factors.
Foster’s 65.4 percent catch rate since Week 10 has brought some stability to the shaky passing game. His impact extends far past any one facet of an NFL offense — and for that, the Bills have found an undrafted gem who has brought excitement to their offense.