Patriots letting Gunner Olszewski hit free agency will hurt special teams
On Wednesday, the New England Patriots did not place a tender on restricted free agent Gunner Olszewski, which means one of two things: either Bill Belichick thinks he can keep the special teams ace … or he’s fine with letting him go.
Patriots fans sure hope it isn’t the latter because Olszewski has been an electrifying return man in many ways, despite his few gaffes last season. In 2020, he was a First-Team All-Pro selection for special teams and led the NFL with 346 punt return yards as well as a 17.1 average per return.
He was still good in 2021, too, logging 26 punt returns for 309 yards (11.9 average) and 18 kick returns for 416 yards (23.1 average). But he did fumble three times, which is a big no-no for a Belichick-led special teams unit. Not the greatest outcome (even though Olszewski got back two of those that he coughed up), but it can’t be enough to let him go, right?
Then again, the Patriots are dealing with a tight salary cap situation, and tendering Olszewski means he would’ve been owed $2.433 million in 2022. Complicated situation, as you can see.
Why didn’t the Patriots tender return man Gunner Olszewski?
Another reason is because the team placed a second-round tender on skilled wide receiver Jakobi Meyers, which will cost $3.986 million against the cap next year, which is more than a $3 million jump from what he was earning in 2021.
So who will return kicks in 2022 if Olszewski leaves? The Patriots also lost running back Brandon Bolden to Josh McDaniels and the Las Vegas Raiders, and the veteran handled most of the kick returning duties in 2019 before Olszewski emerged. Does this mean JJ Taylor is up next?
Right now, the third-year running back is tops on the depth chart followed by safety Kyle Dugger … but having one of your most skilled defensive players returning kicks and punts is never a prudent strategy due to the injury risk.
And there’s no doubt N’Keal Harry won’t sniff return responsibilities after his poor judgement in Buffalo that nearly cost the Patriots a win against the Bills. What about Kristian Wilkerson? Maybe Nelson Agholor? The veteran needs to earn his salary somehow after a disappointing 2021 and a $15 million cap hit in 2022.
Or maybe this conversation is all for naught and Olszewski returns. He’s a prototypical Patriots player and might prefer a system that values special teams as highly as New England does. And he’s a fan-favorite. There are a lot of factors suggesting he could stay, but it’s worrisome that the world got a look at him the last two years and now he’s there for the taking in free agency.