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Patriots 2021 roster breakdown: Gunner Olszewski is the best punt returner in the NFL. Will he make an impact as a receiver as well?

Related: Patriots roster breakdown: LB Cassh Maluia

New York Jets v New England Patriots Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images

With training camp underway, the New England Patriots are fully “on to 2021.”

The team currently has 91 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in August and September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we are taking a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.

Today, the series continues with wide receiver Gunner Olszewski.

Hard facts

Name: Gunner Olszewski

Position: Wide receiver/Kick returner

Jersey number: 80

Opening day age: 24

Size: 6-foot-0, 190 pounds

Contract status: Under contract through 2021 (2022 RFA)

Experience

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 return man. 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 21 games for the team as a backup pass catcher over the next two seasons.

His biggest impact came in the kicking game, though. Olszewski has returned 40 punts for 525 yards and 1 touchdown so far in his career, as well as an additional 18 kickoffs for 418 yards. His performance in 2020 earned him a first-team All-Pro selection as a punt returner. In terms of pass catching, meanwhile, he has only 7 receptions on his résumé for a combined 96 yards as well as 1 touchdown. He also has carried the football 5 times for 23 yards.

What did his 2020 season look like? After Olszewski had to end his rookie campaign on injured reserve due to ankle and hamstring injuries, his return to the field had to wait: with the Coronavirus pandemic forcing teams to cancel their offseason workouts, he did not rejoin his teammates until training camp. When he did, however, Olszewski proved himself a productive member of the team’s receiving corps — at least in practice. In reality, however, he played only a limited role as a pass catcher in 2021.

Appearing in 13 out of a possible 16 games — he missed the first three contests of the year because of a foot injury — Olszewski was on the field for only 108 out of a possible 1,011 offensive snaps (10.7%). Along the way, he caught just 5 passes for a combined 62 yards and a touchdown. He also received the first 5 handoffs of his career, which he took for a combined 23 rushing yards. Despite his solid training camp performance, Olszewski played only a marginal role as a wide receiver during his second NFL season.

That said, it was still a successful one for him individually. After all, Olszewski established himself as the best punt returner in football. Despite missing three games, the sophomore ended the 2020 season as the league leader in punt return yardage with 346. Olszewski gained those yards on only 20 returns, giving him an average of 17.3 yards per runback — clearly the best such number in the NFL and the best among qualifying punt returners since the Buffalo Bills’ Leodis McKelvin gained 18.7 yards per punt return in 2012.

Olszewski also was able to reach the end zone on one occasion. In Week 13 against the Los Angeles Chargers, the youngster took a punt 70 yards to the end zone for the first touchdown of his career (later that same day he scored his second on a reception by backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham). If not for a blindside block penalty against rookie linebacker Anfernee Jennings one week earlier, however, that touchdown would already have been his second: alas, his 82-yard runback in Week 12 came off the board again.

Still, Olszewski showed that he was a serious threat in the return game. While his numbers as a kickoff returner did not live up to the same standards — he returned 18 kickoffs for 418 yards and a 23.2-yard average — his punt return abilities led to him being voted to the first All-Pro team. He was one of only two Patriots to receive the honor, the other being punter Jake Bailey. For as disappointing as New England’s 2020 was, Olszewski himself had a very promising and highly productive season.

2021 preview

What is his projected role? Heading into his third year in the Patriots’ system, Olszewski is again projected to serve as the team’s primary punt returner and a player that also could see action on kickoffs and the offensive side of the ball. When lining up at his listed position of wide receiver, Olszewski will again move all over the board: he was used on both the perimeter and in the slot the last two years, and has upside as a potential Z-option in the mold of recently retired Julian Edelman.

What is his special teams value? Olszewski has been a core member of the Patriots’ kicking game operation ever since arriving as an undrafted rookie in 2019. But while his most prominent contributions come in the return game, he also has seen regular playing time as part of New England’s kickoff coverage squad. 55 of his 164 special teams snaps in 2020 came in that capacity, and Olszewski finished the season with a pair of tackles.

Does he have positional versatility? Olszewski’s versatility extends beyond being able to run back punts and both return and cover kickoffs. The 24-year-old also has experience as a defensive back from his time in college, and has shown that he can line up in various positions on offense: he regularly moved between the slot and the perimeter the last two seasons and also aligned in the backfield on occasion. While his offensive contributions have been limited so far, Olszewski has “jack of all trades” written all over him.

What is his salary cap situation? Entering the final season of the three-year rookie free agent deal he signed with the Patriots in 2019, Olszewski currently counts only $834 against New England’s salary cap: his $850,000 salary does not qualify against the cap under the NFL’s Top-51 rule, meaning that only his fully-guaranteed signing bonus proration is currently considered. Once he makes the active roster, however, his salary will be added to the equation for an in-season cap number of $850,834.

What is his roster outlook? While probably not in the same category as fellow wide receivers Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne and Jakobi Meyers, Olszewski should be considered a safe bet to make New England’s 53-man roster this season. While his comparatively limited exposure in training camp so far suggests that he will not be prominently featured on offense yet again, his productivity in the return game in combination with his theoretical experience and versatility as a receiver makes him a valuable member of the team.