Patriots: Will Gunner Olszewski return to roster before Damien Harris?
By Jerry Trotta
Will Patriots wideout Gunner Olszewski return to the 53-man roster before running back Damien Harris?
Patriots fans were treated to encouraging news on the injury front on Wednesday as running back Damien Harris and wide receiver Gunner Olszewski returned to the practice field for the first time since the end of training camp.
The sophomore duo landed on injured reserve before the start of the 2020 season after leaving a positive impression on the coaching staff during camp, so their injuries couldn’t have come at a worse time. However, this update is an extremely positive one, as Wednesday was the earliest date they could return to practice.
The Patriots now have a tough decision to make in regards to who will get activated to the 53-man roster. Head coach Bill Belichick will have three weeks to do so with the earliest possible time coming ahead of Sunday’s box office clash against an undefeated Chiefs team.
As of this writing, the Patriots only have one open roster spot, so Belichick will have to make just one corresponding move. With that being said, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if Olszewski re-enters the fold before Harris.
Throughout camp we were trying to speak Harris starting at RB into existence, but his return would create even more congestion at the position. James White has returned to practice following the unspeakable tragedy he was forced to reckon with two weeks ago. Given what he offers as a receiver out of the backfield, he’ll undoubtedly play a role.
We also must account for the big games Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead are coming off in Week 3. The former took nine carries for 117 yards (13.0 YPC), and the latter compiled 49 yards and two touchdowns on six totes, adding a team-high seven receptions for 49 yards and a TD in the passing game.
Belichick is obviously the most ruthless coach in the NFL, but he would be out of his mind to bench them in favor of a player in Harris who is coming off a hand injury and hasn’t really proved much since being drafted in the third round of the 2019 Draft. That’s not to say he’s had the opportunity to do so, but we fully expect the Patriots to slow play his return. We don’t doubt that Harris will make an impact on this team, but it likely isn’t going to happen right away.
Olszewski, meanwhile, is entering a much more favorable situation. The momentum he gained during camp has probably passed, but that doesn’t mean Belichick forgot that he was one of the most impressive performers. Furthermore, the Patriots are still searching for somebody to emerge as the clearcut No. 3 wideout behind Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry.
In fairness, Damiere Byrd has shown a nice rapport with quarterback Cam Newton — they played together for three seasons (2016 to 2018) in Carolina — but he’s also been inconsistent. The South Carolina product didn’t log a single target in Week 1 despite playing 88% of the offensive snaps and followed that up with a solid 6-for-72 (on nine targets) against Seattle before an underwhelming 3-for-27 game in Sunday’s win over Las Vegas.
Based on the timing of their respective returns and the play of their running mates, it wouldn’t at all be surprising to see Olszewski return to the roster before Harris. The Patriots’ wide receiving corps could seriously use an injection of dynamism and the 23-year-old offers just that.