Coming off a 2021 season that saw them return to the playoffs but eventually come up short on wild card weekend, the New England Patriots have a long list of to-dos this offseason. One of its items is bringing back players who are scheduled to enter free agency.
There are quite a few of them: all in all, 18 players that were with New England last year are in need of a new contract. Among them is wide receiver Gunner Olszewski, who is a restricted free agent and will therefore hit the open market on March 16.
Name: Gunner Olszewski
Position: Wide receiver/Kick returner
Jersey number: 80
Opening day age: 25
Size: 6-foot-0, 190 pounds
Contract status: Restricted free agent
What is his experience? Olszewski’s football journey is not necessarily unique per se, but it is still an entertaining tale of perseverance. The story started at Division II’s Bemidji State in 2015. Olszewski made an immediate impact as one of the team’s starting cornerbacks and a productive return man. Over the next four years, he went on to appear in a combined 42 games and registered 14 interceptions — including one pick-six — as well as some impressive numbers as both a kickoff and a punt returner.
In order to find a home in the NFL, however, he needed to expand his repertoire: Olszewski was moved from defensive back to wide receiver after signing a rookie free agent contract with the Patriots in 2019, and since then has played in a combined 38 regular season and playoff games. Serving as a depth pass catcher throughout his career, however, his numbers are relatively pedestrian: Olszewski has caught just nine passes for 127 yards as well as one touchdown; most of his production came in mop-up duty.
So, why did the Patriots still keep him on their roster all this time? Because of his skills in the return game. Olszewski has run back a total of 66 punts for an average of 12.6 yards per return and one touchdown so far in his career; he also fielded and returned an additional 41 kickoffs for an average of 22.9 yards. His performance in 2020 — when he led the NFL with a punt return average of 17.3 yards — earned him a first-team All-Pro selection.
What did his 2021 season look like? After earning All-Pro honors in 2020, Olszewski was in a rather comfortable situation heading into his third training camp: he was a relatively safe bet to make New England’s 53-man roster again. While his comparatively limited exposure in camp suggested that he would not be prominently featured on offense yet again, he still made the team. After all, his productivity in the return game in combination with his experience as a backup receiver made him quite valuable.
Olszewski went on to see action in 16 of a possible 17 regular season games — he missed the Week 10 contest versus Cleveland due to a concussion — as well as the Patriots’ playoff loss in Buffalo. Primarily used as a special teamer, he was on the field for 48.3 percent of New England’s kicking game snaps: Olszewski played 224 of 464 snaps in the game’s third phase, being used primarily on the kickoff return and coverage teams but also, unsurprisingly, as the Patriots’ featured punt returner.
In his role as kickoff and punt returner, he ran back a combined 49 kicks — clearly the highest number on the team. Of those 49 returns, 26 were came in the punt game: Olszewski gained a total of 309 yards on those runbacks. His per-return average went down compared to his impressive 2020 season and he also was unable to reach the end zone, but he was still among the top punt returners in the NFL: only the Ravens’ Devin Duvernay (13.8) had a better punt return average than Olszewski’s 11.9.
Olszewski’s performance as a kickoff returner was not on the same level. He did take out 23 kickoffs on the year for a total of 519 yards, but his average of 22.6 yards per runback ranked only 21st in the league among players of 10-plus returns. Sure, the blocking plays a role in this as well but Olszewski was also not able to take advantage of his elite short-area quickness in a kickoff setting. Nonetheless, the team stuck with him as the featured kickoff returner throughout the season.
Olszewski also did not stand out on the offensive side of the ball. The third-year receiver saw the field on just 66 of a possible 1,169 snaps (5.6%), aligning primarily split out wide rather than in the slot. No matter where he was used, however, the ball only rarely came his way: Olszewski finished the season with a mere two catches on three targets for a combined 31 yards, he also had a 9-yard carry. By the way, both of his receptions came on passes thrown by backup quarterback Brain Hoyer.
Free agency preview
What is his contract history? Olszewski signed a standard three-year contract with the Patriots upon joining them as a rookie free agent in 2019. He spent his entire career under that contract but through the NFL’s performance-based escalators has outproduced its original value of $1.78 million: according to Over the Cap, Olszewski’s contractual career earnings are estimated at $1.94 million.
Which teams might be in the running? Olszewski is one of the most productive punt returners in football, which might make him an attractive target to some teams in need of help in this area. Three teams that stand out as potential landing spots are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Philadelphia Eagles and Miami Dolphins: all three need help in the punt and kickoff return games, and the versatile Olszewski might be just what the doctor ordered.
Why should he be expected back? Olszewski has played some solid football for the Patriots since his arrival, and despite his lack of impact on offense can change field position in an instant. His punt return average of 12.6 yards is impressive, making him one of the most dangerous return men in all of football. Add the fact that he likely will come cheap and still offers some value as a backup receiver, and New England might be willing to invest.
Why should he be expected to leave? Even though the Patriots can easily keep Olszewski by placing one of the three restricted free agency tenders on him, such a move is not guaranteed to happen given a) the cost associated with it and b) Olszewski’s comparative one-dimensionality. In turn, the team might allow him to test free agency in March. If that happens it would not be a surprise to see a team with better financial potency sign him away.
What is his projected free agency outcome? Despite his status as an All-Pro just one year ago, the Patriots tagging Olszewski is no guarantee. The first- and second-round levels are unrealistic given his lack of offensive contributions, while the original-round tender — the right of first refusal given that he was not drafted — also costs $2.4 million. It seems more likely that New England uses this number as a starting point to try to sign the 25-year-old to an extension either before or after he enters free agency on March 16. Will that happen? That remains to be seen, but it is no guarantee.
Will the Patriots re-sign Gunner Olszewski?
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