The New England Patriots have lost out on a former All-Pro player.
Former undrafted free agent Gunner Olszewski has elected to join the Pittsburgh Steelers on a two-year $4.2 million deal. The 25-year old return man leaves New England after three seasons, his second of which ended in an All-Pro nomination.
How does this this move impact the Patriots? Let’s take a look.
New England needs new return men
Though he was rarely ever able to crack the offensive lineup after making a position switch to wide receiver from cornerback, the former Bemidji State product found his niche in the NFL as one of the league’s best punt returners. As was mentioned above, the former undrafted free agent even received an All-Pro nomination in his second season after averaging 17.3 yards per punt return, a Patriots franchise record.
He parlayed his punt return abilities into the added responsibility of becoming New England’s kick returner, fulfilling both duties in 2021. Now, with him signing a free agency deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Patriots have a pair of important roles to fill.
Though Olszewski served as both the kick and punt returner last season, they are two different jobs and not all players have the ability to fulfill both roles. Free agent addition Ty Montgomery is the most likely option to take over the kick returner role, having served in that capacity before for the Green Bay Packers and Baltimore Ravens. Other options to return kicks include J.J. Taylor and Rhamondre Stevenson, both of whom served in that role during training camp. It is unlikely that New England would risk the health of Stevenson in that role, while Taylor’s spot on the roster is anything but certain.
The punt returner role is a little more complicated as it serves a greater purpose. Olszewski stood out on this role and left some big shoes to fill. In-house options to replace him include Jakobi Meyers, N’Keal Harry, Kyle Dugger, and the aforementioned Taylor. Meyers filled in for an injured Olszewski sporadically in 2020 and 2021 while Harry, Dugger, and Taylor all served the role in college. Harry’s only foray into NFL punt returning was an unsuccessful endeavor but could help him stay on the roster if a trade doesn’t come to fruition this offseason. Dugger is in a similar position to Stevenson where his role on defense could prove to be too valuable to risk him in such a role. Taylor’s status as a roster-bubble player remains.
The Patriots could have an extra roster spot in 2022
For as valuable as his contributions on special teams were, Gunner Olszewski was a net-negative offensively throughout his time in New England. His nine catches in three seasons with the team were almost always made amongst reserve players and his snap percentage dwindled in each of the three seasons he spent in Foxborough. Essentially he was a returner who took up a roster spot.
If New England is able to fill the roles left behind by Olszewski with proven offensive or defensive contributors who already would have made the roster, they have one extra spot available for a depth player.
Olszewski’s departure won’t help New England get a compensatory pick
Most all NFL free agency additions and losses factor into the NFL’s compensatory draft pick formula. Not every loss will get you a pick, but since Olszewski is a former All-Pro player, it’s not crazy to think that the NFL could award New England an extra pick in the 2023 draft for their loss.
Though that thought is nice, there is one major factor working against this idea. The Patriots had the option to tender Olszewski and chose not to, giving up the ability to match any offer he may receive. If New England decided to give him the original round tender, he would be factored into the formula. They did not, so he will not.