Chiefs rookie review: Khalen Saunders sees first meaningful reps against Colts

We are now into October and it is clear that both second-round picks by the Kansas City Chiefs are being heavily relied upon.

The Kansas City  Chiefs’ young bucks continue to play a part on both the offense and the defense. We are now into October and it is clear that both second-round picks, Mecole Hardman and Juan Thornhill, are being heavily relied upon.

In addition, Chiefs Kingdom also got their first extended look at defensive lineman Khalen Saunders in the wake of injuries to Chris Jones and Xavier Williams.

Here’s a closer look at “the freshmen” in Kansas City.

Mecole Hardman, wide receiver

Mecole Hardman has received several reps with the injury to wide receiver Tyreek Hill. When fellow wideout Sammy Watkins exited the Colts game with an injury early in the first quarter, we thought Hardman might get more of an opportunity. But the rookie from Georgia was leapfrogged in the lineup by Byron Pringle, who responded with six catches for 103 yards and a score.

Hardman played 39 of the Chiefs 63 offensive snaps and was targeted six times. He caught four passes for 79 yards. He also received one carry, a gadget play on an end around that resulted in a loss of six yards. A couple of highlights include a bobbling 16-yard gain on 3rd-and-9 in the second quarter and a highlight-reel grab on the sideline for 31 yards later in the quarter that Hardman was able to pull in despite defensive pass interference. The latter play was questioned by Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth from the announcer’s booth, as it appeared the edge of Hardman’s heel may have touched the boundary before the reception, but the Colts did not review the play.

Late in the fourth quarter, Hardman was targeted at midfield on a 3rd-and-28. The Colts were flagged for interfering with the rookie and the play would have given Kansas City a first down, down by six points with just 5:49 left to play. But the play was nullified by an offsetting holding call against the Chiefs, and the two teams had to replay the down.

Hardman also caught a 19-yard pass just before the two-minute warning. It is encouraging to see the young speedster receive several targets in the last few minutes of the game. As we learn more about Watkins’ availability and await the return of Hill, it will be interesting to see where Hardman fits into the Chiefs’ plans.

Juan Thornhill, safety

Juan Thornhill, a free safety from Virginia, started his fifth consecutive game (the only rookie to start for the Chiefs) against the Colts. He continues to give decent play in coverage, but has yet to make his presence strongly felt with his tackling. While Thornhill has served as a significant upgrade from last year’s starting safeties, he continues to give up a yard or two while tackling, instead of really putting the hammer to the ball carrier. At 6’0″ 210 lbs., Thornhill has the size and elite athleticism to get in position to be that enforcer at the back of the run defense.

For the second time in as many weeks, the Chiefs supplanted Thornhill in the lineup with veteran Daniel Sorensen for a series. In the second quarter, Thornhill sat while Sorensen played in the drive that ultimately resulted in a Tyrann Mathieu interception. Thornhill finished the Indianapolis game with two solo tackles and an assist.

Khalen Saunders, defensive tackle

An interior defensive lineman from Western Illinois, Khalen Saunders was active for his first game on Sunday and the timing couldn’t have been better. Defensive tackles Chris Jones and Xavier Williams each exited the Colts game prematurely, and Saunders was inserted into the lineup on run downs (which ended up being almost every snap in the second half).

Saunders didn’t embarrass himself, and although he struggled a little bit at first with right guard Mark Glowinski, he actually performed better against left guard Quenton Nelson. Saunders won a few snaps against the first-team All Pro, and provided a much needed breather for Nnadi and Tanoh Kpassagnon (the latter played a lot of snaps on the inside this week). Without Jones, Williams, and defensive end Alex Okafor, the Chiefs were whittled down to just five healthy defensive linemen.

The Colts ran heavy late in the game and were forced into two field goals inside the red zone. Though the defensive line was wheezing, the team was able to put together stops when they needed it most, and it kept Kansas City’s chances alive. Saunders’ contribution to that should not go unnoticed.

Both Jones and Williams are in a contract year (and Williams has been placed on IR). The Chiefs signed another defensive tackle this week in Terrell McClain, but while Jones is still out, the team is going find out what it has in this year’s third round pick.

Rashad Fenton, cornerback

The cornerback from South Carolina has been active for each game, yet has not received a test on defense yet. Fenton dropped from fourth CB to fifth on the depth chart, as Morris Claiborne came off suspension this week. Fenton does contribute on special teams and he did make a tackle on a kickoff against Indy.

Darwin Thompson, running back

Thompson was inactive in the Colts game, as the team went with a pass-heavy approach.

Nick Allegretti, offensive lineman

Allegretti was inactive again, as he has been for each game this season. He has survived on the roster as the team has cut Jeff Allen and Ryan Hunter in the last several days. It’s clear the team has a long-term plan for the rookie from Illinois, but they do not believe he is ready yet (as evidenced by the signing of free agent G/C Stefen Wisniewski.

Next: An upside-down week in the AFC West
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