Get all of Chris Burke’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
A strange thing happened to D.J. Foster during his senior season at Arizona State. After spending three years as a running back, he transitioned to a full-time wide receiver role ... and finished with fewer receptions than he’d had coming out of the backfield. His 59 grabs in 2015 came up three shy of his ’14 total and four shy of ’13.
The disappointing statistical season could pay dividends in the long run, though. Rather than entering the draft pegged as a “pass-catching running back,” Foster now can point to extensive experience at multiple positions.
“I definitely believe in my ability to play running back. That’s where my strong suit is. It’s my most comfortable,” Foster said at the combine. “But I developed the craft to play receiver, and I definitely gained a lot of confidence over this last year, being switched full-time. I’m excited to just show the ability to do both. Especially this weekend, to go out there and show I can run crisp routes and that I do have good hands. I’m excited to show both on display.”
Attaching a positional designation to a player is part of the draft process, but it can be unnecessary. Take, for example, an edge rusher (is he a DE or OLB?), a defensive back (S or CB?) or, in this case, an offensive playmaker like Foster. Is he a running back or a wide receiver?
It shouldn’t matter in the right offense. Foster may not be a standout prospect at any one position, but he offers the sort of versatility that can be a boon for a creative attack. Just think about what Dion Lewis did for the Patriots before suffering an injury: 36 catches at a 10.8 yard average, plus a healthy 4.8 yards per carry on about seven attempts per game. Foster was productive in similar fashion for the Sun Devils, topping out with a 1,769 yards-from-scrimmage campaign in 2014. That number was good enough for a top-20 ranking across the FBS level, not all that far behind a who’s who of running backs like Melvin Gordon, Jay Ajayi, Tevin Coleman, Ezekiel Elliott, Duke Johnson and others.
Even after making his move to receiver, Foster still saw 55 rush attempts last season—many coming on sweeps out of the slot. Arizona State did not find enough ways to get him the football during his senior year (his 114 touches were a career low). When he had the opportunities, though, he made the most of them, posting a career-best 7.6 yards-per-touch clip.
“It worked out for me,” Foster said. “Stats-wise it didn’t, but understanding the game and just getting that experience before making that transition to the NFL, going against a corner every day in practice. The coaches brought the idea to me because losing Jaelen Strong and a couple receivers like that, we needed a little depth out there. I definitely felt like I could help being one of the main receivers even when I was at running back over the last couple of years. I was definitely open to it and just wanted to expand my game a little bit.”
Foster’s mention of matching up with cornerbacks on a regular basis is an important footnote. He made catches out of the slot when he was a running back, too, but in those spots often drew a matchup with a linebacker or safety. Ditto when he released out of the backfield as a pass catcher.
Matching up with a slot corner provides a different challenge, as those defenders are quicker and more adept in coverage. Indeed, one reason why Foster saw a drop in his stats was that he struggled to create as much space on a consistent basis when running routes vs. cornerbacks. He did show a nose for the end zone (32 career touchdowns, 18 rushing), but he’s also not an overly physical or big presence, so there are moments where defensive backs can frustrate him with contact.
But that is where the experience Foster gained as a wide receiver comes into play.
“I definitely took it as a learning experience,” he said. “It opened my eyes in understanding coverages and being more of a student of the game. It was disappointing as a team; we didn’t achieve our goal. But me, individually ... as a player I grew, and I learned a lot about being a leader, as well.”
No one will confuse Foster with a workhorse back. During his four years at Arizona State, covering 53 games, he averaged just under 13 touches per game. He did top out at a nearly 20-touch average during that electrifying 2014 season, but odds are against him ever being the primary option on an offense.
And that’s OK. When the draft drifts into its mid-rounds, teams are not necessarily looking for stars (though they may strike gold on occasion). They want contributors—players who have NFL skill sets that need refinement and/or come with a handful of unknowns about how they’ll fit at the next level.
Those hunting true No. 1 running backs will look elsewhere. Those in need of a polished, proven slot receiver may do the same. Eventually, a team will come along that wants a player, like Foster, who can pull a bit from column A and some from column B.
“All it takes is one team to fall in love with you,” Foster said. “Especially with the type of player I am, I think I can fit a system very well if they can use me that way.”