FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — For a man of few words, Bill Belichick sure has a lot to say about Gunner Olszewski.
"He's much, much, much further ahead from where he was last year," the New England Patriots head coach said last week.
For anyone keeping track at home, that's three uses of the word “much.”
Belichick rarely singles out individuals, often opting to praise groups as a whole. So, as far as anyone's concerned, he was gushing over Gunner.
“Gunner's improved tremendously,” Belichick said. “Again, both physically and from a football standpoint. He's a smart kid, he works extremely hard. He’s tough, he’s very, very competitive. He needs to learn how to do a lot of different things for us and he continues to work on things that will expand his opportunities.”
Olszewski, the second-year pro out of Bemidji State, infamously made a death-defying run through training camp in 2019 and snuck onto New England's 53-man roster. This year, though, with roster cuts looming on Sept. 5, he doesn't feel so much like a longshot anymore.
“Year two's a lot more fun,” Olszewski said last week. “You have an idea of how every day is going to be. Obviously, being a rookie is tough. Especially our rookies this year, not having a spring portion. I feel good. I know our whole class, our rookie class from last year, we're all talking about it, and we all say year two is a lot more fun. Less thinking and a lot more just playing ball.”
With his infectious personality and underdog upbringing, Olszewski captured the attention and support of an entire fanbase last fall. No longer an unknown, the former Beaver is now gaining hype for his improvements, too.
New England media have collectively come to a consensus: After all-pro Julian Edelman, Gunner Olszewski has looked like the best wide receiver in camp.
Gunner Olszewski continues to make the most of his opportunities. With Edelman and Ross out today he got more work and he made several nice catches. Unless something drastically changes, hard to see him not making team.— Ryan Hannable (@RyanHannable) August 25, 2020
Another note: This speaks to the Patriots' talent at WR but also his development, Gunner Olszewski has looked like the second best WR in camp behind Julian Edelman, though N'Keal Harry made a push today.— Doug Kyed (@DougKyed) August 24, 2020
“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 of that’s coming together,” Belichick said of Olszewski. “… His overall background, knowledge, understanding, being a professional athlete, training, some of his fundamental athletic skills — he’s refined those quite a bit.”
Olszewski, who will reportedly earn $675,000 this year as part of a three-year, $1,757,500 rookie contract, has been a highlight of Patriots camp so far. He's beaten reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore for a sideline catch, started forging a connection with new quarterback Cam Newton and carried over many of the tenacious tendencies he flashed as a rookie.
He played in eight games in 2019, mostly on special teams, before nagging ankle and hamstring issues resulted in a season-ending trip to the injured reserve list. After the Patriots converted him from an all-conference college cornerback to an NFL wide receiver, Olszewski caught two passes for 34 yards and averaged 9.0 yards on 20 punt returns.
“I've been a wide receiver ever since I came to the National Football League. So I don't really think of myself as a former defensive player,” Olszewski said. “… The standards of playing in the NFL as a receiver is a lot different than college. I think I learned just like everybody else did last year. We're all new receivers in the NFL. And this is our second year as NFL receivers. I don't consider myself more behind or ahead of anybody. I've been a receiver since I've been here, and that's the position I play. Comfortability has always been the same.”
If Olszewski plays in at least nine games this year, he'll become the longest-tenured Bemidji State Beaver in NFL history. And every single ounce of that milestone will have been earned.
“You know you have to compete against Gunner,” Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson said. “He's coming at you every play, every snap. He's going to go 100%, even in blocking drills. He's a dog. He has a dog mentality. I love going against Gunner.”
To no one’s surprise, though, Olszewski kept things pretty simple.
“I just like being on the field and playing ball,” he said.