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Very Deep Sleepers: D.J. Foster (Patriots)

Jun 7, 2016

Does New England provide the best situation for D.J. Foster to excel?

Does New England provide the best situation for D.J. Foster to excel?

R.C. Fischer discusses deep sleeper candidate D.J. Foster of the Patriots.

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Foster’s future has everything to do with Dion Lewis‘ past. Their two college/NFL journeys may be intertwined forever, as people tell the story years from now/a year from now/two months from now. We’ll catch up with D.J. Foster’s side of this equation in a moment. First, let’s walk through the history of Dion Lewis.

Lewis was drafted in the fifth round in the 2011 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles – a highly productive college runner, but a very diminutive running back prospect (5′7, 193). He wasn’t one of those small but speedy types either. Lewis tested with a red-flag-raising 4.62 40-time at his NFL Combine.

He failed to impress with the Philadelphia in his first two seasons, and in 2013, his new coach, Chip Kelly, shipped him away to the Cleveland Browns for Emmanuel Acho in a forgettable trade. As would always seem to be the “Browns’ luck,” Lewis fractured his fibula, losing his 2013 season, and was cut before opening day the following season, never taking a regular-season snap for the Browns.

A few weeks after being bounced by the Browns in August 2014, Lewis signed with the Colts in September 2014 – and never took a snap with them. On January 1, 2015, Lewis was quietly signed to a futures/reserve contract with the New England Patriots. No one saw coming what would happen next.

Lewis would emerge from a cluster of Patriots running back hopefuls trying to fill a role left behind by Shane Vereen. Lewis won the job, and no one really cared too much in the fantasy football world. Four catches and 122 total yards later, on Opening Day last year, fantasy GMs started to care.

In Week 2, Lewis saw nine targets and caught six passes for 98 yards, amassed 138 yards total, and rushed for a TD. He would soon become arguably the most prized running back possession on any fantasy/PPR roster. As fast as Lewis took the world by storm, he tore his ACL in Week 8, sending fantasy GMs scrambling to acquire backup James White off of waivers.

White was an ‘OK’ fill-in, but he was no Lewis. It was Lewis’ superior play that took the role of running back as a quasi-wide receiver weapon to a whole new level. Fantasy GMs marveled as a 5′7″ running back with a 4.6+ 40-time, working with his fourth team in five years, who had not touched the grass in a regular-season game since 2012, was now one of the most lethal running back weapons in the NFL and all of PPR fantasy football.

As the calendar turns to 2016, fantasy GMs are wondering if Lewis can repeat his magical 2015 performance in the 2016 season. How will Dion Lewis respond coming off an ACL surgery? Is Dion Lewis too injury-prone (broken fibula 2013, ACL 2015) to be relied upon seriously by the Patriots in the short or long term?

Enter undrafted free-agent rookie wide receiver out of Arizona State D.J. Foster. Foster enters the NFL with almost no fanfare.

He went undrafted. He joins a Patriots backfield that is always a cluster and conundrum for any fantasy GM to try to figure out. We all know/assume Lewis is the established guy. White has experience and draft status. LeGarrette Blount fills a completely different role.

Where does Foster fit in? Why even mention a college wide receiver prospect among the Patriots’ backfield options?

Foster has a unique college story. Before entering Arizona State, Foster was a record-setting high school running back in the state of Arizona. He quickly proved to be more than just a runner of the ball for the Sun Devils.

As a freshman, he ran the ball 102 times and caught 38 passes (and was voted to the Pac-12 All-Freshman team). As a sophomore, he ran the ball 93 times and caught 63 passes. Arizona would work him as a traditional running back, receiving back and slot wide receiver.

In 2014, Foster made his biggest statement in the Pac-12. Named as the starting running back in 2014, Foster had an unbelievable season, rushing for 1,081 yards and nine TDs while catching 62 passes for 688 yards and three TDs.

That kind of rushing-receiving combined output is almost unheard of in college. He would end his college career as one of only five players in the history of college football to run for 2,000+ yards and post 2,000+ yards receiving as well.

In 2015, Foster made a radical change. He moved to a new role – he switched from starting running back to become the team’s starting slot receiver (but still ran the ball 55 times). He was third on the team in receptions and total yards.

The NFL, apparently, wasn’t as impressed with Foster’s college career. He did earn an NFL Combine invite, and was listed with, and worked out among, the wide receiver group.

Foster became lost among the sea of wide receiver talent. He ran a so-so 4.57 40-time and didn’t stand out physically at 5′10, 193 lbs.

Looking at Foster strictly as a wide receiver prospect, he is pretty bland. His receiving numbers from 2015 were solid, but not attention-getting. However, if you consider Foster as a running back prospect, a running back/wide receiver hybrid prospect, it’s a whole different analysis.

Physically, Foster would compare favorably with more notable running back prospects lauded for their receiver skills such as Kenneth Dixon and Paul Perkins. Looking at what Foster did as a receiver out of the backfield for years, and then transitioning to slot wide receiver – you could argue that Foster is the most accomplished, well-rounded receiving talent among any of the running back prospects in the 2016 NFL Draft.

So where does Foster wind up in the NFL? Of course, he falls in with Bill Belichick – the mastermind behind making Lewis an RB/WR hybrid superstar out of nowhere. Now, Belichick possesses a better version of Dion Lewis.

Foster IS the bigger, better, badder Lewis. Foster’s measurables are superior to Dion Lewis’ in every speed and agility timing way you can compare them (from their NFL Combine data). Foster is also taller with longer arms and bigger hands.

Foster was working the ‘Dion Lewis role’ for Arizona State before anybody knew what the ‘Dion Lewis role’ really was – Dion Lewis caught 52 passes in college; D.J. Foster grabbed 222. For additional perspective, Kenneth Dixon (everyone’s favorite runner-receiver RB prospect from 2016) caught 87 passes in college.

The ‘Dion Lewis role’ in an NFL backfield is the future of NFL offenses, and the future is now – and Foster’s college resume for such a role is arguably better than that of any running back prospects from the 2016 NFL Draft. So what happens if Lewis doesn’t bounce back well from his ACL surgery?

We all want a healthy Dion Lewis for our PPR league teams. However, if Lewis is not ready to go, or the injury has slowed him down in some way, the next-best option the Patriots have might be Foster (and not Arian Foster).

What if D.J. Foster, the man who college history says is a perfect prospect for the “Dion Lewis role,” is the best option even if Dion Lewis is ready to play? What if at their best, Foster is just the superior weapon compared to Dion Lewis? I would argue, physically, and college performance-wise that Foster is better for this role than Lewis, right now.

It’s not like Bill Belichick doesn’t have a history of doing wacky, unpredictable things with his running back stable year to year, or week to week. It’s not like Bill Belichick hasn’t ever pushed an unheralded college prospect ahead of an established starter before either. Foster may have landed in the perfect place at the perfect time in NFL history.

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