With only two weeks to go until they are scheduled to report to training camp, the New England Patriots currently have the league-allowed maximum of 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer — just like we did the last three years as well — we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.
Today, the series continues with one of New England’s second-year players.
Name: Gunner Olszewski
Position: Wide receiver/Punt returner
Jersey number: 80
Opening day age: 23
Size: 6-foot-0, 190 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2021 (2022 RFA)
What is his experience? Olszewski’s football journey is not necessarily unique per se, but it is still an entertaining tale of perseverance — one that started at Division II’s Bemidji State in 2015. That year, he made an immediate impact as one of the team’s starting cornerbacks: Olszewski registered seven interceptions (including three in one game against Minot State) and established himself as a fixture in the Beavers’ secondary. As such, he went on to appear in a combined 42 games over his four-year college career.
For as impressive a defender he was, Olszewski also stood out as a returnman. He averaged 13.4 yards on 69 career punt returns and also found the end zone once, and gained 29.7 yards per runback on 11 kickoff returns. In order to find a home in the NFL, however, he needed to expand his repertoire: Olszewski was moved to wide receiver after signing a rookie free agent contract with the Patriots in 2019, and went on to appear in eight games for the team as a backup pass catcher and punt returner during his rookie season.
What did his 2019 season look like? Even though he had an impressive senior campaign at Bemidji State and was named the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year, Olszewski generated little interest leading up to the NFL’s 2019 draft. He did not hear his name called during the event and also remained unsigned through the first wave of rookie free agency. Eventually, however, Olszewski received two invitations to rookie minicamp by the Minnesota Vikings and the Patriots.
Following his workout in New England, the club decided to sign him to a three-year contract — albeit at a different position. The Patriots decided to move Olszewski from cornerback to wide receiver. Despite some expected growing pains, the rookie was able to play his way into the rotation during training camp and the preseason, and went on to finish the exhibition schedule as the team’s leader in all-purpose yards: Olszewski gained a combined 289 yards, with 213 of them coming in the returngame.
The Patriots had initially planned to release the youngster on cutdown day, but instead kept him on their 53-man roster as their primary punt returner and a depth option at wide receiver. In this role, Olszewski went on to appear in eight regular season games before ankle and hamstring injuries forced the club to send him to season-ending injured reserve in mid-November. At that point, he had played 79 of a possible 595 offensive snaps (13.3%) as well as 95 of 234 (40.6%) in the kicking game.
While his contributions as a wide receiver were limited to two catches on four targets for 34 yards, Olszewski did have a positive impact on special teams. He fielded 20 punts and ran them back for a combined 179 yards and an impressive average of 9.0 yards per return. That being said, he also had a fumble in Week 3 against the New York Jets that was returned for a defensive touchdown. All in all, his rookie campaign can therefore best be described as “up-and-down.”
What is his projected role? Heading into his second year in the Patriots’ system, Olszewski is again projected to play a dual-role and see action on both offense and special teams. On the one hand, he will serve as a depth wide receiver whose primary responsibilities — at least when judged by his usage in 2019 — lie on the perimeter as a Z-option. On the other hand, he will regularly see the field as a punt returner that also offers experience and upside when it comes to running back kickoffs as well.
What is his special teams value? Before New England decided to shut him down halfway through the 2019 campaign, Olszewski played an important role as the Patriots’ primary punt returner. His value on special teams extends beyond running back punts, however: Olszewski also saw regular snaps as a member of the team’s kickoff coverage units last year, and registered one tackle in this role. He furthermore, as noted above, has experience as a kickoff returner as well.
Does he have positional versatility? Besides being able to run back kicks and his track record as a defensive back, Olszewski also projects favorably in a Julian Edelman-like role on offense. Edelman, of course, is more than just your prototypical slot receiver — he also is regularly split out wide as a Z-option. Olszewski’s skillset could allow a similar usage as well after he saw only marginal playing time from the slot during his rookie season.
What is his salary cap situation? Following his invitation to the Patriots’ rookie minicamp last spring, Olszewski signed a standard three-year contract with the organization. Entering the second year of this pact, the 23-year-old carries a salary cap number of $675,833. At the moment, however, only a fraction of it — his $833 signing bonus proration for the 2020 season — is actually on New England’s books under the NFL’s top-51 rule.
What is his roster outlook? Olszewski making the roster in 2019 was a surprise considering his late addition to the team and transition from defensive back to wide receiver. If he can continue his development and make the famous second-year jump in 2020, he again could be in a position to either make the 53-man team or at least the practice squad. However, he faces some serious competition both at wide receiver and in the returngame: New England added six pass catchers over the course of the offseason and also drafted potential punt returner Kyle Dugger in Round Two. While Olszewski does have an experience advantage over all of them, he will have to fight for his job over the course of training camp and the preseason.