Gunner Olszewski’s pro football career has been a wild ride so far. He tried to enter the NFL out of Division-II school Bemidji State, but did not hear his name called during the 2019 draft.
The New England Patriots eventually took a chance on him, trying to convert him from defensive back to wide receiver. Over the next two years, Olszewski did not see much action at his new position, but he developed into the best punt returner in football: he was named to the first All-Pro team in just his second season in the league.
Now heading into his third training camp, Olszewski is all about looking ahead. He also has a familiar goal in mind.
“Bigger, stronger, faster — that’s the goal every year,” he recently told NESN.com.
“It’s fun seeing yourself grow as a player when you work hard. I say, ‘Hard work pays off, but it don’t owe you nothing.’ You still have to go out there and do it. Just because you worked hard doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful, but it definitely gives you a little jump start.”
The 24-year-old is obviously entering training camp as the Patriots’ primary punt return, but he will also be competing for a spot on a wide receiver depth chart that has been rebuilt in spring.
New England lost former Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman to retirement and also saw Damiere Byrd, 2020’s number one option at least in terms of playing time, leave as an unrestricted free agent. In the meantime, the club acquired the likes of Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne and Marvin Hall; it also selected Tre Nixon in the seventh round of the draft.
While none of them has the same special teams pedigree as Olszewski, they will fight against him for offensive opportunities over the course of training camp and preseason. The third-year Patriot, however, comes prepared.
After all, Olszewski turned the page rather quickly after New England’s previous season had come to a disappointing end.
“It’s been going good, we’ve got a group of guys up there,” he said about working out at the team’s facility at Gillette Stadium. “Got rolling pretty quickly. We had a longer offseason because we didn’t play in January, which is obviously never the goal. You want to be playing football games into January. So, I kinda got rolling in February.”
Olszewski did not spend the entire offseason in New England, but he pointed out that he tried to stay close to the team’s home base throughout the process.
“I like being close to work, so I stayed in Foxborough for the most part,” he said. “Took a couple trips, but being around the area reminds me what I’m doing and how I need to work. So, I like to stay close. Just lifting, running, all that stuff you need to do to prepare for a long season.”
So far in his career, however, Olszewski has yet to play a normal-sized season. His rookie campaign ended eight games in due to ankle and hamstring issues, while he missed three weeks in 2020 because of a foot injury.
Despite those ailments, Olszewski appears to be confident heading into his third year as a pro.
“I’m in good shape and I’m strong,” he said. “Ready to roll.”