BOSTON (CBS) — When Gunner Olszewski routinely showed up as the first player on the field every day for training camp last year, the Division II defensive back-turned-NFL receiver/punt returner was looked at as a unique Bill Belichick project and not much more.
Now in year two, it’s a whole new ballgame, as the 23-year-old Texan is seemingly carving out a role for himself in Cam Newton’s offense.
Olszewski — whose rookie season was cut short due to injuries — has been turning heads on the practice field this summer, developing a relationship with Newton that just might translate into some offensive production when the games begin in September.
On Tuesday, that connection manifested itself in the form of a completion that had Newton all sorts of fired up on the practice field.
Cam Newton was fired up when Gunner Olszewski pulled in a contested catch vs. Jon Jones. Cool to see how enthusiastic Newton is when his teammates make plays.
— Zack Cox (@ZackCoxNESN) August 25, 2020
Back-shoulder grab to N’Keal (on JMac) followed by a dime to Gunner on a corner route from Cam Newton in 7s. One of Cam’s better throws on the ball to Gunner, great catch too over Jon Jones. #Patriots
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) August 25, 2020
It was merely the latest instance of Gunner standing out, something that’s been noticeable throughout these dog days of summer.
Another day, another strong start to practice for Gunner Olszewski.
— Andrew Callahan (@_AndrewCallahan) August 25, 2020
Getting the work in.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) August 24, 2020
Last week, Belichick was asked about Olszewski’s progress in year two. Instead of speaking in generalities about how every player is trying to improve, Belichick borderline gushed about Gunner’s progress.
“Gunner’s improved tremendously. Again, both physically and from a football standpoint,” Belichick said. “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. 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 of that’s coming together. 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, similar to other second-year players that we just talked about. He’s certainly in that group.”
Last week, Olszewski discussed with the media how much more comfortable he is this year compared to last year.
“How much did I learn [as a rookie]? You want a percentage? A lot. That’s what we come in here every day, especially after getting hurt and getting put on IR. All you have is the mental side of the game. I think I learned a lot,” Olszewski said. “Year two’s a lot more fun. You have an idea of how every day is gonna 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.”
Last summer, Olszewski flashed in spurts during camp and the preseason, but he still had to sweat on cut-down day. He was actually told that he wasn’t making the team, only for a last-minute trade of Keion Crossen to open up a spot for Gunner. He played in eight games, returning 20 punts with a 9-yard return average. He also caught two passes for 34 yards, getting just 79 offensive snaps.
While practice is still just practice, it’s notable that Olszewski beat all-world cornerback Stephon Gilmore for a reception this summer. Gunner played it cool when asked about it by the media, but it’s that type of play that may have Olszewski feeling a bit more comfortable when cut-down day arrives in year two.