The Pittsburgh Steelers signed wide receiver Gunner Olszewski to two-year, $4.2 million contract in free agency and mainly due to his kickoff and punt return abilities. So, that means that Olszewski, who spent the last two seasons with the New England Patriots as their primary returnman, is a lock to make the Steelers’ 53-man roster later this summer, right? Well, as the great Lee Corso always likes to say, “Not so fast, my friends.”
During the Steelers’ mandatory minicamp practices that took place last week, special teams coordinator Danny Smith made it known during a media session that nobody has locked up any jobs when it comes to the return department.
“It is wide open,” Smith said, according to Brian Batko of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He went on to add that he is looking at “a select number of guys.”
Smith went on to further explain the situation when it comes to the returner possibilities in 2022.
“To be honest with you, we’ve got more choices than we’ve had,” Smith said. “We have more numbers than we’ve had, so we’ll sort that out. You could say this guy has an advantage or that guy has an advantage, but I don’t really look at it like that at this point because we haven’t been in-game with some of these guys yet.”
Smith’s comments aside, it’s obvious that Olszewski is the most accomplished player currently on the Steelers’ roster when it comes to return abilities.
In his three previous seasons with the Patriots, Olszewski, a former undrafted free agent out of Bemidji State University, returned 66 punts for 834 yards and a touchdown, with a long of 70 yards in regular season action. He also has returned 36 total kickoffs to date in the NFL for 834 yards, with a long of 37 yards. He was named a First-Team All-Pro in 2020 for his efforts that season.
Beefing up Olszewski’s resume is the fact that he had 10 career special teams tackles in the NFL to date with seven of those coming during the 2021 season. Don’t think that Smith isn’t aware of that.
Beyond Olszewski, the Steelers do indeed have other options when it comes to possible return men. That said, none of those options have as much experience as Olszewski does, which is
Fellow Steelers wide receiver Steven Sims, who spent 2021 on the team’s practice squad, has experience in the NFL as a returner, as he has returned 30 punts for 186 yards and 35 kickoffs for 861 yards and a touchdown. Another Steelers wide receiver who spent most of the 2021 season on the team’s practice squad, Anthony Miller, has returned five punts for 55 yards and eight kickoffs for 183 yards in his NFL career.
While Steelers rookie wide receiver Calvin Austin III, the team’s fourth round draft pick this year out of Memphis, did do some returning at the college level, he was limited to punts only, with a total of 29 of them for 323 yards and two touchdowns. Another rookie wide receiver, Tyler Snead, an undrafted free agent out of East Carolina, enters the NFL with more returning experience than Austin has. Snead managed 60 kickoff returns for 1,268 yards and two touchdowns and 37 punt returns for 270 yards during his college career.
Moving past those players, Steelers running back Anthony McFarland Jr., wide receiver Cody White and even cornerback Cameron Sutton are return capable. That said, and if we’re being honest, it’s hard to imagine any of the three winning the returner job this summer.
In closing, Smith’s recent comments about the returner job being wide open this early in the summer is likely him being respectful. He probably wants to send a message to Olszewski that no job is safe in June. Even so, Olszewski, while listed as a wide receiver, has all of nine receptions for 127 yards and a touchdown in his first three NFL seasons. He was essentially signed to the deal that he was to be the Steelers’ new returner now that wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud is gone. If he fails to get that nod from Smith come Week 1, he’s unlikely to make the 53-man roster and thus the Steelers will be out the $1.235 million signing bonus they gave him back in March.