When Gunner Olszewski arrived in New England as an undrafted rookie defensive back in 2019, he hardly looked like a professional football player. Undersized and slight, the Bemidji State product nevertheless earned a spot on the roster as a receiver and special teamer, eventually appearing in eight largely unproductive games.
But he took his strength and conditioning to a higher level in the ensuing offseason, transforming his body and showing far more skill during New England’s 2020 training camp. A late-preseason injury, along with a variety of other factors, including Cam Newton’s spotty play, prevented Olszewski from ever finding a consistent role in the passing game. But he excelled as a returner, leading the NFL in punt return yards and earning first-team All-Pro honors.
However, following the Patriots’ offseason spending spree, nothing is guaranteed for Olszewski ahead of his third training camp in New England, and he knows it. So, he made a brief trip to his hometown in Texas before returning to Foxboro for a pivotal offseason.
“It’s been going good, we’ve got a group of guys up there,” Olszewski, who drove the pace car in Sunday’s NASCAR race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, told NESN.com. “Got rollin’ pretty quick. We had a longer offseason cause we didn’t play in January, which is obviously never the goal. You wanna be playing football games into January.
“So, I kinda got rolling in February.”
Staying near Gillette Stadium was about much more than convenience for a player who must stand out in training camp if he wants extended time at receiver.
“I like being close to work, so I stayed in Foxboro for the most part,” he said. “Took a couple trips, but being around the area reminds me what I’m doing and how I need to work. So, I like to stay close. Just lifting, running, all that stuff you need to do to prepare for a long season.”
Ultimately, Olszewski’s performance in camp and during the preseason will determine his job status with the Patriots. But, as he proved last summer, going all-out during the offseason can put him in a position to hit the ground running.
“Bigger, stronger, faster — that’s the goal every year,” he told NESN.com. “It’s fun seeing yourself grow as a player when you work hard. I say, ‘Hard work pays off, but it don’t owe you nothing.’ You still gotta go out there and do it. Just because you worked hard doesn’t mean you’re gonna be successful.
“But it definitely gives you a little jump start. … I’m in good shape and I’m strong, ready to roll.”
Olszewski, 24, now has the skill set and body type necessary to return punts and play slot — like Julian Edelman before him — for the Patriots. But he has his work cut out for him in seeing targets within an offense that now features Nelson Agholor, Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne and a pair of star tight ends. Perhaps N’Keal Harry’s likely exit will open the door for Olszewski to ascend up the depth chart.
Will he step through it?