Gunner Olszewski couldn’t stop smiling as he answered questions from a caboodle of reporters following Thursday’s exhibition finale.
It’s a pretty safe bet that he’s still smiling.
Olszewski rode the roller coaster of emotions Saturday, but at the end of the day he was right where he was when he woke up: On the Patriots’ roster.
The undrafted rookie, who was literally digging ditches with his father in Alvin, Texas, when he received a call and an invitation to New England’s rookie minicamp, made the cut on New England’s 53-man initial unit.
It was quite a reversal of fortune for Olszewski, an unknown cornerback from Division 2 Bemidji State, who according to a league source was informed in the morning he’d be released, only to receive an 11th-hour reprieve.
Olszewski switched to receiver and returner in the spring, and surged throughout the summer. He punctuated his preseason by playing offense, defense, and special teams in Thursday’s loss to the Giants.
“The best time of my life,’’ Olszewski said of his training camp experience.
“He’s very competitive and he works hard, and he’s improved,’’ coach Bill Belichick said Friday. “He has a long way to go, but he’s made a lot of improvement. He’s making a big jump from where he played to where he’s playing now, positionally and so forth. He’s improved a great deal.’’
The other big surprises of cutdown day were the jettisoning of quarterback Brian Hoyer, who served as Tom Brady’s top backup for the last two-plus seasons, and veteran receiver Demaryius Thomas, who made his preseason practice debut just a week ago and caught two touchdown passes Thursday night.
Other major moves included placing center David Andrews, defensive end Derek Rivers, rookie fourth-round guard Hjalte Froholdt, and undrafted rookie safety Malik Gant on season-ending injured reserve; and the trade of cornerback Keion Crossen to the Texans for a sixth-round draft pick.
Andrews is being treated for blood clots in his lungs, and Rivers suffered an unspecified leg injury in the second preseason game in Nashville. He also missed his rookie season because of a torn ACL.
Froholdt suffered a shoulder injury and Gant hurt his leg against the Giants.
“Unfortunate start to 2019 for me,’’ Andrews wrote in an Instagram post. “Thankful for all the thoughts and prayers from everyone. Best believe I’m doing everything I can do to get back out there in 2020. Go Pats and Go Dawgs.’’
Hoyer didn’t play in the final two exhibition games, foreshadowing the move. The Patriots have kept two quarterbacks in seven of the last eight seasons, with 2016 — when Brady was suspended for the first four games — the exception.
It’s also possible the releases of Hoyer and Thomas are temporary, as their spots might have been needed to keep another player on the original 53 for a short stay. Players who make the original 53 are eligible to return from injured reserve, while players who are sent to IR prior to the cutdown deadline are ineligible to return this season.
Hoyer and Thomas aren’t subject to waiver claims and can call their own shots.
The Patriots also released receiver Braxton Berrios, who ran a lot of routes this summer — even working with the first team during joint practices in Tennessee when injuries thinned the corps — but couldn’t crack the roster.
Berrios, a sixth-round pick in 2018 who spent his rookie season on injured reserve, was bit by the injury bug late in camp and missed the third preseason game, which really hurt his chances.
Tight ends Stephen Anderson and Eric Saubert, who was acquired late in camp from the Falcons, were released, as were running back Nick Brossette and fullback Jakob Johnson, who came to the club via the International Player Pathway.
After overhauling their offensive line with three trades this past week, the Patriots cut Dan Skipper, Cole Croston, and James Ferentz. Skipper had built some early momentum in camp, running at left tackle with the first-stringers, but was ultimately passed when Isaiah Wynn began to emerge.
On defense, cornerback Ken Webster, a seventh-round pick, was released. He was the only one of the team’s 10 picks not to stick. Linebackers Calvin Munson, who had a solid summer; Scooby Wright, who impressed with a two-sack game Thursday night; Christian Sam; and Terez Hall were let go.
Tackle Nick Thurman and ends Ufomba Kamalu and Trent Harris also were cut.
Receiver Cam Meredith remains on the physically unable to perform list, and rookie offensive tackle Yodny Cajuste stays on the non-football injury list. They would be eligible to return after Week 6.
Many of the players cut Friday and Saturday could return on the practice squad, which teams can start to assemble at 1 p.m. Sunday after the waiver claims are sorted out.