When Bill Belichick took a seventh-round flyer on a quarterback out of Kent State during the 2009 NFL draft, nobody could have predicted Julian Edelman would become of the beloved players in the history of the New England Patriots. Renowned for his work ethic and dedication to his craft, he developed a reputation as a fierce, tough slot receiver who showed no hesitation about putting his body on the line.
That fearless playing style put Edelman in harm’s way on several occasions. And ultimately, persistent knee issues forced the decorated postseason star to retire from the NFL this offseason. Luckily for the Patriots, they already have his potential replacement on the roster in Gunner Olszewski. While speaking about his mentor, the former small-school standout only needed two words to describe a player who will forever be viewed as a legend in Foxborough.
Gunner Olszewski looks like a top candidate to replace Julian Edelman
Like Edelman, Olszewski joined the Patriots with a point to prove. A cornerback at Bemidji State University, the 6-foot, 190-pound undrafted free agent transitioned to receiver once he arrived in New England. The Texas native surprisingly survived final cuts thanks to his ability to contribute on special teams.
As a rookie, Olszewski only caught two passes for 34 yards. However, the quick-footed wideout flashed intriguing ability as a punt returner. In an ironic twist of fate, Edelman’s health issues essentially opened the door for his young understudy to take over full-time return duties in 2020.
Though he still made a limited impact on offense, Olszewski made his presence known in the kicking game. He led the NFL in punt return yards (346) on 20 attempts. Plus, he even took one back 70 yards for a touchdown in New England’s 45-0 shutout against the LA Chargers in Week 13.
Olszewski’s breakout campaign resulted in first-team All-Pro honors as a returner. While he still has to prove he can get open on a consistent basis, his physical profile and overall skillset make him a logical candidate to replace Edelman in the slot.
The young wideout perfectly summed up the Patriots legend in 2 simple words
During his first two years in Foxborough, Olszewski benefitted from working alongside Edelman. For a young player trying to prove himself, having the opportunity to see how an established veteran went about his business made a world of difference.
During a virtual press conference with the media, the 24-year-old spoke about the impact Edelman had on his own development.
“I don’t think I can put it into words,” Olszewski said. “He took me under his wing, me and Jakobi [Meyers] both—kind of being underdog receivers. Kobs was a former quarterback, and me, I didn’t play receiver, so he kind of showed us the ropes.”
Edelman’s nagging knee injury forced him to hang up his helmet and shoulder pads for good, but his toughness always stood out to Olszewski. In fact, he summed up the future Patriots Hall of Famer in a stunningly simple way.
“Two words: piss and vinegar,” the third-year pro said of Edelman. “That’s what that dude was all about. I don’t know if I can say that on here, but those are the two things that I’ll never forget. Oh, and I’ve got two more: competitive stamina.”
A new era of offense in New England
Edelman’s departure stings on a number of levels. At the end of the day, though, the Patriots needed to move in a new direction on offense. Sure, his leadership will be missed. But he simply couldn’t be counted upon to remain on the field on a consistent basis any longer.
Losing him to retirement opens the door for younger players to step up. Olszewski and Meyers should battle it out for starting slot receiver duties. N’Keal Harry desperately needs a productive training camp to secure a roster spot. And don’t sleep on seventh-round rookie Tre Nixon outplaying his draft pedigree and carving out a role.
In addition, the offense will likely experience a philosophical shift back toward a two-tight end attack. With Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith headlining the depth chart, Josh McDaniels has two established playmakers who can inflict damage in multiple ways.
Based on how the last two years have gone, the Patriots needed to overhaul a unit that has fallen well short of expectations. So as much as it hurts to see Julian Edelman leave, his absence will force the rest of the receivers to step up.
Make no mistake about it, though—Olszewski faces a steep challenge to fill his predecessor’s shoes.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.