Gunner Olszewski had a rough few days, and people wondered.
Has the third-year pro, an undrafted, converted defensive back out of Bemidji State, developed enough as a wide receiver to stick on the Patriots’ roster? Was his ability as a punt returner enough to keep him in New England? Couldn’t the Patriots just get similar returns out of J.J. Taylor?
It’s asking a bit much to expect something close to First Team All-Pro production from a replacement returner. Olszewski set a new franchise record in 2020 with a ridiculous 17.3 yards per punt return, and led the league in punt return yards (346) with a touchdown. So, despite a few ugly drops as a receiver in the final week of the preseason, Olszewski was evaluated based on the whole of his summer. For the Patriots’ coaches and evaluators, it was important to avoid recency bias.
In the case of Olszewski, his spot on the Patriots’ 53-man roster was safe over Kristian Wilkerson, Isaiah Zuber, and Tre Nixon because he produced a greater sum than the others over the course of camp. Olszewski may be, at best, the fourth or fifth receiver in the pecking order. But the others’ up-and-down performance and lack of versatility made Olszewski the most valuable piece in the bunch, and he proved that throughout the summer.
“The evaluation process is something that’s every single day, ongoing,” said wide receivers coach Mick Lombardi on Wednesday. “It starts as soon as a player walks in the door in the building. I think, for Gunner, that was three years ago as an undrafted rookie and then every single day since, and every guy that kind of comes in that way trying to prove something, they kind of have to have something every single day. We talk about stacking the days here and building off the days and learning from mistakes, and if you have a bad day, how do you respond to that bad day? And how do you come back and get better from your mistakes and learn from them?
“I think young players, especially like a guy like Gunner, can do that. As he puts it back in his memory bank and can go back on it and say, ‘You know what? I’m going to learn from that and move on.’ That’s what most young players who grow do. That’s what we try and do here as we develop young men into becoming good NFL football players is, hey, here’s what you did, here’s how you can fix it, and move on.”
Bill Belichick, in a press conference shortly before the Patriots ramped up roster cutdowns, sounded like a head coach invested in a still-developing player for the foreseeable future.
“He’s been able to play multiple spots for us and has improved his route running technique and overall receiver skills,” Belichick said Tuesday of Olszewski. “Similar to J.J. [Taylor]. Still has a way to go. I don’t think he’s a finished product yet, but certainly a lot better than what it was. He works hard. He’s made a lot of improvements. Continues to. He’s smart. He’s able to play multiple positions. He’s come a long way, and I think there’s still some areas in front of him that he can get better.”
Olszewski wasn’t even a wide receiver three years ago. Ultimately, he provides value in a way that other receivers could not. That buys him time to continue developing as a pass-catcher, and to do it as one of the league’s elite punt returners at that.