A year ago, Gunner Olszewski was the 90th man on the New England Patriots’ roster — a scrawny Division II cornerback convert in an oversized No. 72 jersey who’d landed a spot through a rookie tryout.
Now, he looks like he belongs.
Olszewski, who defied the odds in 2019 to make the team as a punt returner/depth receiver, has added muscle since landing on injured reserve last November. Through one week of open practices, the Bemidji State product has been one of the more impressive wideouts in Patriots training camp.
“Gunner’s improved tremendously, both physically and from a football standpoint,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said Friday morning. “He’s a smart kid. He works extremely hard. He’s tough. He’s very, very competitive. He’s learned how to do a lot of different things for us, and he continues to work on things that will expand his opportunities. So it’ll be interesting to watch him take advantage or try to take advantage of those opportunities and watch him play and see how all that’s coming together.”
“But his overall background, knowledge, understanding, being a professional athlete, training — some of his fundamental athletic skills, he’s refined those quite a bit, and he’s much, much, much further ahead from where he was last year.”
Olszewski’s quickness and tenacity were evident last summer, and he proved to be a surprisingly capable route-runner for someone who only played defense and special teams in college. He’s improved in that area in Year 2 and has benefited from increased reps in camp, as fellow receivers N’Keal Harry, Julian Edelman, Jeff Thomas and Will Hastings all have missed time or been limited.
“Gunner is a tough kid,” Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson said Wednesday. “Gunner is the type of kid you know you have to compete against. Gunner, he’s coming at you every play, every snap. He’s going to go 100 percent, even in blocking drills. He’s a dog. He has a dog mentality. I love going against Gunner.”
Olszewski was the Patriots’ primary punt returner last season before an injury shelved him, and he currently looks like the favorite to regain that job. The 23-year-old averaged 9.0 yards per return on 20 runbacks as a rookie, sixth-best among qualified NFL returners.
Offensively, Olszewski played 79 snaps over eight games, 50 of which came in a Week 6 win over the New York Giants. He finished the year with two receptions on four targets for 34 yards.