On the evening of March 17 the Pittsburgh Steelers lost wide receiver/kick returner Ray-Ray McCloud to the San Francisco 49ers, who are signing him to a two-year contract worth as much as $10.4 million, this according to Jeremy Fowler of ESPN. It took the Steelers less than 24 hours to find McCloud’s replacement. Late on the afternoon of Friday March 18, Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported that Pittsburgh is inking former New England Patriots wide receiver/kick returner Gunner Olszewski to a two-year, $4.2 million contract.
Olszewski, 25, served as New England’s punt and kickoff returner for the past two years, and was named first-team All-Pro in 2020, when he led the NFL in punt return yards (with 346), despite recording only 20 returns (17.3 yards per return), as per Pro Football Reference (PFR).
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Olszewski’s Path to the NFL
Gunner Olszewski entered the NFL in 2019 as an undrafted free agent out of Division II Bemidji State, where he played cornerback and returned kicks for the Beavers.
After a senior year in which he was named NSIC Defensive Player of the Year he worked out at the University of Minnesota’s Pro Day and subsequently earned minicamp tryouts with the Vikings and Patriots. He went on to sign with the Pats on May 22, 2019, this according to bsubeavers.com.
In three seasons with the Patriots, he appeared in 37 games and returned 66 punts for 834 yards and a touchdown. He also returned 34 kickoffs for 834 yards—an average of 23.2 yards per return. Olszewski has played sparingly as a receiver; in three years he was targeted 12 times, catching nine passes for 127 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed the ball six times for 32 yards.
Yet the Patriots elected not to tender Olszewski as a restricted free agent, allowing him to hit the open market.
McCloud vs. Olszewski
Now the fourth-year pro will be charged with replacing McCloud, who served as Pittsburgh’s primary kick returner ever since he was signed following a tryout in August 2020. At 6 feet tall and 190 pounds, Olszewski has a little more size than McCloud, who is three inches shorter.
Olszewski also has two touchdowns to his credit since coming into the league. Strangely, McCloud has never scored a TD in an NFL regular-season game. Moreover, he reached the end zone only five times in 40 games while in college at Clemson.
It’s also worth noting that in McCloud’s best season as a kick returner (2020), he averaged 10.3 yards per return, according to PFR. Olszewski’s career average as a punt returner is 12.6 yards per return.
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Meanwhile, on Friday former Steelers second-round pick JuJu Smith-Schuster agreed to a contract with the Kansas City Chiefs, as Smith-Schuster hoped. As a result, the Steelers have just one free agent wide receiver who remains unsigned, that being former second-round pick James Washington. The market for Washington has been quiet thus far. He has 60 career games and 25 career starts under his belt but he’s coming off a season in which he caught just 24 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns.
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