When the Pittsburgh Steelers signed WR/KR/PR Gunner Olszewski, they thought they were getting a proven return man who could consistently give them good field position in the return game. However, that didn’t prove to be the case last season as Olszewski struggled to find his footing in Pittsburgh, muffing crucial punts while doing a poor job of judging the coverage running down field and attempting to make returns that he shouldn’t.
Ultimately, Olszewski lost the return job to WR Steven Sims, who provided a spark in that department for the Steelers on a couple of occasions, limiting Olszewski to a jet sweep role or acting as a blocker in heavy personnel formations. Olszewski totaled five receptions for 53 yards and eight carries for 39 yards on the season while chipping in eight punt returns for 55 yards (6.9 YPR) and three kick returns for 46 yards (15.3 YPR), both career lows.
With Sims now with the Texans, Olszewski appears primed to take over the return role again in 2023 should ST Coordinator Danny Smith entrust that responsibility to him. However, given Olszewski’s poor showing in his first season in Pittsburgh and various factors affecting his roster spot, it would be best for the Steelers to move on from him prior to the start of the regular season.
The Steelers now have a fairly loaded WR room in terms of potential options behind the entrenched starters, having traded for Allen Robinson II and re-signed Miles Boykin this spring. Throw in the fact that they have Calvin Austin III coming back from injury and also have Anthony Miller, Hakeem Butler, Cody White, and others in tow, saving the sixth WR spot on the roster for Olszewski, who doesn’t bring anything as a pass catcher and struggled mightily as a returner last season, seems like a bad use of a roster spot that can be used on a better pass catcher.
Olszewski logged only 106 special teams snaps (26%) last season, including his return work, meaning he wasn’t a notable contributor there and should be easily replaceable. Pittsburgh would save about $2 million in cap space prior to roster displacement and incur $617,500 in dead money if it released him, according to OverTheCap, saving a decent chunk of change that can be used on in-season moves.
Given the recent rule change on the kickoffs to make all fair catches come out to the 25-yard line, the role of kick returners has only diminished for this coming season. This could open the door for Austin, who is going to make this team’s roster, to become their return man in 2023. While he didn’t record a kick return in college at Memphis, Austin served as a lethal punt returner, recording 29 returns for 323 yards (11.1 YPR) in his final two seasons including two return TDs. Throw in the fact that Miller has some return experience himself and is objectively a better receiver than Olszewski, and it’s hard to justify keeping the return man with his cap charge and the options Pittsburgh has in-house.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Gunner Olszewski. He is a throwback-type of player who gives everything he has in all facets of the game. However, there really isn’t a role for him anymore based on the roster additions made this offseason as well as the rule change affecting his value to the team. Don’t be surprised if Olszewski is kept and brought into training camp to push Austin and whoever else challenges for the return job. If Austin proves worthy of that role, you should expect Olszewski to be given his walking papers and try and find a job somewhere else.