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Moving from cornerback to wide receiver a challenge for Patriots rookie Gunner Olszewski

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The undrafted rookie is trying to carve out a role on New England’s wide receiver depth chart.

NFL: New England Patriots-Minicamp Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Gunner Olszewski’s time as a wide receiver appeared to be little more than a minor footnote on his résumé when he entered the NFL draft process: during his junior year in high school and with his older brother playing quarterback, he played receiver but was forced to abandon the position after he broke his hand in three places and had to wear a cast for the remainder of the season. From that point on, Olszewski was exclusively a defensive back.

At Division II’s Bemidji State, Olszewski blossomed into a difference maker at cornerback: playing 42 games over four seasons, he registered 310 tackles, 13 interceptions — one of which returned for a touchdown — and 40 pass breakups as well as a sack and three forced fumbles. To cap his college career, he was named the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference’s defensive player of the year in 2018.

And yet, NFL teams were reluctant when it came to the 6-foot defender.

One team that was not? That would be the reigning world champions. The New England Patriots worked out Olszewski at his Pro Day, but they were more intrigued by his upside at another position than his abilities and experience when it came to playing in the defensive backfield: the Patriots wanted him to make the move to wide receiver — and promptly invited him to their rookie minicamp after he went undrafted.

“One of the scouts hit on it at my Pro Day [...] I talked to Coach [Joe] Judge, and he thinks I can do it. So, I was just excited to come give it a shot.” said Olszewski when revisiting his pre-draft encounter with the Patriots, who added him to their roster shortly after rookie minicamp. “I think they saw a small guy, lower to the ground, quick. Kind of like Danny Amendola, he’s another Texas boy. I just want to prove them right, prove that I can do this.”

Going back to wide receiver after numerous years playing as a defensive back certainly is no easy task — something the rookie acknowledged during the Patriots’ mandatory minicamp earlier this month. Olszewski pointed out that the transition is not an easy one: from learning to run routes as opposed to defending them, to studying one of the NFL’s most complex offensive playbooks, the move to receiver has proved to be a challenge.

“It definitely hasn’t been easy,” Olszewski said before going into the specifics of how the challenge looks like for him coming from the other side of the ball. “Playing [defensive back], you can run however you want with the ball after you get an interception. But running routes, you just just have to keep your cuts nice and tight, protect the ball, and just catch everything — play with confidence.”

“Mentally it’s very, very challenging for me. Never learned an offensive playbook before, and I hear this one’s pretty hard to learn. That’s what I need to work on for the most part,” the 22-year-old continued. Luckily for Olszewski, however, he has some veteran company in the wide receivers room to help him get up to speed — and no player is better equipped to assist the rookie than ten-year veteran and current Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman.

“I love that guy,” said Edelman, a former seventh-round draft pick that moved from quarterback to wide receiver after arriving in New England, about Olszewski. “If he’s got a question, I’m here to help and try to answer it to the best of my ability. I feel that’s part of my role on the team, being here so long. He’s working hard. He’s definitely a tough kid. I love the chip on his shoulder, and I like working with him. That’s for sure.”

Olszewski acknowledged that he would keep a close eye on Edelman during practice, trying to emulate his movements and jump-cuts as best as possible. The rookie in general appears to be open to doing whatever it takes to make the team (or at least the practice squad): “My mindset was ‘I’ll play anything here.’ If y’all just want me to be a holder, I’ll be the best holder you’ve ever seen. I’d really do anything to get onto the field, I’d play anywhere.”

Right now, ‘anywhere’ is at wide receiver — and next month, when the Patriots open training camp, Olszewski will get another chance to prove that New England was right to believe in his abilities.