New England Patriots

Aug 19, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Gunner Olszewski (80) runs the ball against the Philadelphia Eagles during the fourth quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

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.

FOXBOROUGH, MA - JANUARY 03: Gunner Olszewski #80 of the New England Patriots carries the ball during the third quarter of a game against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on January 3, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

Gunner Olszewski of the New England Patriots carries the ball during the third quarter of a game against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on January 3, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

“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.

  • J.J. Taylor Unleashed?

    The Patriots haven’t had a running back on their roster like J.J. Taylor since Dion Lewis. Nicknamed affectionately as “Little Dion” by his position coach, the ever-quotable Ivan Fears, the 5-foot-6, 185-pound Taylor has the upside of a similarly explosive weapon for the Pats’ revamped offense.

    “As a runner? As a runner, this son-of-a-gun, I’ll tell you what: He’s gonna cause some people some problems. He’s little as sh*t, and people kind of find it hard to find his butt,” Fears said. “When he goes to the line, they can’t find him. So that makes it exciting for him, he gets some plays that [other] guys don’t get, because of his size. But he’s strong, he makes people miss, he’s explosive, he’s got great vision.

    “The kid’s got some stuff going on. I’m kind of happy to have him around. I hope we have a chance to make something happen.”

    EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - AUGUST 29: J.J. Taylor #42 of the New England Patriots runs the ball against Devante Downs #52 of the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium on August 29, 2021 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

    J.J. Taylor of the New England Patriots runs the ball against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium on August 29, 2021 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

    Taylor could have an early role as a kick returner, and should factor in as a change-of-pace back and a partner for James White in the two-back “Pony” formation. Fears noted that Taylor has “come a long way” since his rookie season, when he was active for only six games and got 24 total touches.

    Amid depth issues at wide receiver and health concerns at tight end, Taylor adds a unique skill set to arguably the Patriots’ deepest position group.

  • Wise's Evolution

    Of all the long-term contracts the Patriots signed in their busy offseason, Deatrich Wise’s four-year, $22 million extension was among the most surprising. But it wasn’t such a head-scratcher inside Gillette Stadium, where Wise has emerged as a locker room leader, and continues to improve as a player, too.

    An apt comparison for Wise’s deal is that of former Patriots tackle Marcus Cannon, who signed a five-year extension for up to $32.4 million with the Patriots in 2015, despite having started only 11 games in four seasons up to that point. By 2016, Cannon was starting 15 games at right tackle and earning second team All-Pro honors.

    FOXBOROUGH, MA - JUNE 16: Devin McCourty #32, Deatrich Wise Jr. #91, and Lawrence Guy #93 of the New England Patriots walk onto the field at the New England Patriots practice facility for mandatory minicamp on June 16, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)

    Devin McCourty, Deatrich Wise Jr., and Lawrence Guy of the New England Patriots walk onto the field at the New England Patriots practice facility for mandatory minicamp on June 16, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)

    Wise is a massive long-shot for the All-Pro team, but he seems to be rounding into form after reinventing himself since 2019, when the Patriots shifted from a 4-3 defense to more of a 3-4 base. Defensive line coach DeMarcus Covington, who began his career with the Patriots when the team drafted Wise in 2017, has had a front row seat to his career evolution.

    “I would say this is a guy that’s getting better every year,” Covington said. “Works hard, puts in a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of film study, a lot of improvement every single year. You can put him wherever you want to put him, it doesn’t matter. For him, it’s all about working hard and bringing a hard hat every day. If you look up in the dictionary, and you see ‘work ethic,’ that’s him.”

    In the preseason finale, Wise compiled a half-sack and a quarterback hit to go with one tackle against the Giants’ starting offense. Especially considering the upgraded talent around him in the Patriots’ front-seven, Wise is poised to surprise people who raised an eyebrow at his extension.

  • Linebacker Parallels

    As of this writing, the Patriots have signed 10 players to their practice squad for 2021, but only one from outside the organization: Jahlani Tavai from the Detroit Lions. Tavai has familiarity with Matt Patricia, who was the Lions’ head coach from 2019-20.

    Tavai is an almost cosmic parallel to another Patriots linebacker. Kyle Van Noy was also drafted in the second round in his draft class, just three spots apart – Tavai was 43rd in 2019, Van Noy was 40th in 2014 – and also came to the Patriots from the Lions in his third season.

    The odds are certainly low that Tavai would turn out to be anything close to the playmaker Van Noy became in New England. But it’s an interesting connection to note. Tavai’s development will be something to monitor.