FOXBORO, Mass. — Gunner Olszewski might be diminutive, but he’s also been hard to miss on the New England Patriots practice field.
Olszewski is living up to the stereotype of a “lunch-pail worker.” Generously listed at 6-feet, 170 pounds and sporting No. 72, he’s been the first man on the field by a wide margin in each of the Patriots’ first two minicamp practices.
Olszewski, who actually measured in at 5-foot-10, 178 pounds at Minnesota’s pro day, fits in among the Patriots’ wideouts, however. He displays soft hands and looks quick in his routes. And this is notable in itself because he played defensive back at the Division II level at Bemidji State. Outside of a handful of snaps playing wide receiver as a junior in high school before breaking his hand, Olszewski had never played the position.
And after an audition at rookie minicamp, he’s now doing it on the Patriots’ roster. This leads to one question: Why?
Head coach Bill Belichick wasn’t very helpful in answering it.
“We saw him a little bit in rookie minicamp,” Belichick said Wednesday. “But I don’t know. It’s a long way to go. We’ll see. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Olszewski explained how it all went down.
“One of the scouts hit on it at my pro day, asked if I had played it before, and I said, ‘No,’ ” Olszewski recalled. “He kind of nodded his head and was like, ‘OK, we’ll see what happens.’
“I talked to Coach (Joe) Judge, and he thinks I can do it. So, I was just excited to come give it a shot.”
Olszewski certainly looks the part of a Patriots slot receiver in the mold of a Wes Welker. It seems Judge saw things the same way.
“Yeah, I think they just saw I was a smaller guy, lower to the ground, quick, kind of like he said something like Danny Amendola,” Olszewski said. “You know, he’s another Texas boy. It was cool to hear from that. I just want to prove them right now — prove that I can do this.”
Though he’s making it look easy, the transition to wide receiver hasn’t been a simple one for the former D-II defensive back, who came into the experience with an open-hearted attitude.
“Yeah, I joked about it that moving from DB to receiver, it’ll be easy because when I play receiver, I know where I’m going,” Olszewski said. “But DB, you’re backpedaling, they’ve got 53 yards to work with.
“It definitely hasn’t been easy. That’s definitely not true. But I catch the ball well. I move the ball well and just play with confidence I think.”
Olszewski is a major long shot to make the Patriots. Behind roster locks Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry and special teamer Matthew Slater, Olszewski is competing with veteran receivers Demaryius Thomas, Maurice Harris and Dontrelle Inman and younger players like Braxton Berrios, Damoun Patterson, Jakobi Meyers and Ryan Davis for a roster spot. And Olszewski’s chances probably are slimmest of all of those receivers.
But the Patriots have had some success with Division II college cornerbacks. They did find Malcolm Butler after a similar rookie minicamp tryout. They’ve also shown the ability to take a player from another position and move him to wide receiver. Julian Edelman, who’s a fan of Olszewski, comes to mind.
“I love that guy,” Edelman said. “If he’s got a question, I’m here to help try to answer it to the best of my ability. I feel that’s part of my role on the team, being here so long. He’s working hard. He’s definitely a tough kid. I love the chip on his shoulder, and I like working with him, that’s for sure. … He definitely works his tail off, and I like having him around.”
Olszewski, like Edelman, doesn’t lack for confidence. When he mentioned he’s from Alvin, Texas, a reporter responded that’s Nolan Ryan’s town.
“That’s our claim to fame. At least until I’m done playing, you know,” Olszewski said jokingly.
Or was he kidding?