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What does Gunner Olszewski bring to the Steelers return game and beyond?

Did the Steelers get more than a return man?

NFL: AFC Wild Card Playoffs-New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers have made a number of additions so far for the 2022 season. After losing three players from the wide receiver room to free agency, the only player the Steelers have added who wasn’t with the team in 2021 is All-Pro kick returner Gunner Olszewski. Did the Steelers get an upgrade in their return game, and is Olszewski a player who can help as a wide receiver? This is the subject for this week’s Steelers Vertex.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

When the Steelers signed Gunner Olszewski, some were wondering if he would fit in the wide receiver room as well as the return game. While I will get to stats on both eventually, I do want to point out that Olszewski‘s cap number for the season of $1.5825 million is 58% higher than the $1 million hit last season from Ray-Ray McCloud. Although the salary cap went up 14%, the Steelers did appear to invest more at the position than last season.

In looking at Olszewski‘s production as a returner, the obvious thing that stands out is his All-Pro season of 2020. During that season, Olszewski led the NFL in punt return yards of 346 as well as having a touchdown and average 17.3 yards per punt return. What is interesting is that Olszewski missed the first three games of the season due to injury.

For his career, Olszewski has an average of 12.6 yards per return on punts and 23.2 yards per return on kickoffs in three seasons with the New England Patriots. Although Olszewski tied for the third-most punt return yards in the NFL last season, he was only 58 yards behind Ray-Ray McCloud who led the league. More importantly, Olszewski achieved those yards on 12 fewer returns.

When it comes to usage as a receiver, Olszewski has only seen 12 targets in three seasons. Bringing in nine receptions for 127 yards along with a touchdown, Olszewski has a 75% catch rate and 14.1 yards per reception. Additionally, he also has a 10.6 yards per target number for his career. Olszewski‘s 10.3 yards per target in 2021 would have placed him second on the Steelers only behind Anthony McFarland who had 11.0 yards per target as he had one reception on one target for 11 yards. But with Olszewski only pulling in two passes on three receptions last season, it’s not that the sample size is overly encouraging and telling in anyway.

It should be noted that Olszewski also has 6 career rushes for 32 yards. In 2021, Olszewski had one rush for nine yards.

With so little sample size of Olszewski on offense, it’s going to be more helpful to look at both his returns and his receptions by checking out the film.

The Film Line:

Gunner Olszewski has worn a number of hats besides his main one of punt returner since coming into the league. He does return kicks, although not full time, and he works on coverage teams. But he is also a gadget player, and has a handful of receptions and runs. Let’s start by looking at Olszewski as a runner.

Patriots at Jets, 2020.

Gunner Olszewski is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

Olszewski shows solid speed and a good sense of angles, and he gets a good gain here on the end around.

Patriots at Jets, 2020.

Gunner Olszewski is the slot receiver to the bottom of the screen.

Olszewski on this jet sweep shows a sense of following blockers, but not a lot of creativity in his running. He’s not bad in this role, but he doesn’t bring you as much as Chase Claypool or JuJu Smith-Schuster have.

How about as a receiver?

Patriots at Chargers, 2020.

Gunner Olszewski is the second receiver from the top of the screen.

Good job on this route for the lone offensive TD of his career, but this is more about a defense down 38 points with half a period left in the game failing to cover him than anything else. Does he offer as much as Ray-Ray McCloud did when he took over the 3rd receiver spot in 2021? I can’t really say for sure, because like McCloud, Olszewski isn’t a guy anyone wants to have to put in that position, but I don’t see much promise on film.

What we see on offense is a guy who can execute a play well, but with little to add to that. He’s not really shifty or creative, he gets you the yards the play should get.

Patriots at Chargers, 2020.

Gunner Olszewski is the returner.

Here Olszewski reads the field well, takes great angles, and runs hard. Again he isn’t the shifty, creative runner a lot of people associate with high-end returners, he’s the guy who is going to take smart paths and angles to get the yards his team gives him. He does beat the punter’s tackle attempt, so he’s not completely unable to slip people, but you wouldn’t call him an elusive runner.

When he tries to be that kind of player, it doesn’t go well.

Patriots at Colts, 2021.

Gunner Olszewski is the returner.

Olszewski gets himself in trouble here trying to gain yards where there aren’t any, and ends up putting the ball on the ground. The ball goes out of bounds, but this is not what you want from your punt returner.

Patriots vs 49ers, 2020.

Gunner Olszewski is the returner.

Here again on a kickoff return we see Olszewski seeing the safe yards and taking good angles to get them. He gets across the 25 yard line for a true gain on the play, but it stands out that this is one of his longest kick returns.

Ray-Ray McCloud and Gunner Olszewski are the top returners the last two seasons in the NFL, and they aren’t the shifty, big play breaking returners people tend to think of. There’s no Devin Hester or Dante Hall moments on film for either of them. They take the smart yardage and hand the ball over to the offense. That’s what the Steelers like and what the league is trending towards these days.

Lastly Gunner Olszewski plays on kick coverage.

Patriots vs Jets, 2020.

Gunner Olszewski is fourth from the top on the kicking team (he has red shoes).

It’s hard to keep track of him, but Olszewski gets down field first, gets knocked flat, gets up and makes the tackle, hanging onto the returner as he is whipped around.

The Point:

Find the smart angle, run hard. That’s Gunner Olszewski across the board. Running a sweep, catching a screen, returning punts or kicks, and on coverage teams, that’s what he brings to your team. He doesn’t bring a whole lot more than that, but for a bottom of the depth chart receiver and primary returner, that’s the right skillset.