Chiefs defensive tackle Khalen Saunders could become much more important in 2020.
Suddenly that third round grab of Khalen Saunders is looking much more important.
When the Kansas City Chiefs selected Saunders as an enticing small-school prospect in the 2019 NFL Draft’s third round, it was a developmental risk on a player with very intriguing potential. While the buzz on Saunders begins with his ability to do a backflip despite weighing 320 pounds, the reality is that Saunders’ talents are much less gimmicky on the field. He’s simply an incredible combination of size, strength, and athleticism.
Saunders projected best as a 1-technique lineman coming out of Western Illinois where he dominated with 72 tackles along the defensive front, including 13 of them for a loss. He also had 6.5 sacks. However, questions about his level of competition kept the draft focused on more “sure things” in earlier rounds.
For the Chiefs, Saunders was an ideal grab for the future—the only question being just how far away that future would be. For his first year, Saunders enjoyed a nice combination of playing time and developmental reps. Given Chris Jones injury last season, Saunders found himself receiving 300 defensive snaps for the Chiefs last season, but upon Jones’ return, he largely sat behind more experienced (read: polished) options down the stretch.
The Chiefs are loaded right along the defensive front with an All-Pro like Jones working alongside the steady production of Derrick Nnadi and veteran Mike Pennel, who came on strong for the Chiefs and earned himself a one-year renewal. With Saunders in tow, the Chiefs had a nice combination of veteran leadership and strong potential thanks to savvy investments in both free agency and the draft.
However, the last week has upset this apple cart, or at least given indications that it could happen. Chris Jones intimated that he would not play in 2020 if the Chiefs were not able to meet his financial demands for a new contract extension. Given that the Chiefs already used the franchise tag on Jones earlier this offseason, the deadline to work things out is July 15. After that, both parties have to give it a rest until the 2020 season is over—a big risk for either party.
Recent reports signal little headway toward the stated goal of a deal from both sides, which means Jones could potentially sit out in 2020. If so, Saunders’ will lose whatever comfort he might have felt knowing there were lower expectations for the coming season. Instead, the Chiefs will need him front and center—literally—from Week 1.
Last January, Saunders spoke about his growth, especially in the mental aspect of the game, during his rookie year to reporters.
“I think just knowing what I’m getting, the scheme coming at me, and just being more confident. I was watching. I used to play a half yard off the ball, little stuff like that that’s easy to fix. Regardless of playing, just linemen, knowing what you’re doing before the snap. I think the mental aspect of the game has evolved for me. The physical is going to come, but I also feel more comfortable so that is allowing my physicality and athletic ability to shine through kind of.”
Given Saunders’ natural skill set and the tutelage provided by excellent coaches up front (e.g. Brendan Daly), Chiefs Kingdom might be pleasantly surprised by what they find in Saunders if he’s forced to step into such a large role. The Chiefs have made the investment and the potential was always there for Saunders to be an immense run defender with potential to disrupt. With or without Jones, his growth could be key for the upcoming season.
But let’s also be clear. Saunders and Jones are different players, and the Chiefs would undoubtedly miss Jones’ incredible reach (he’s a full 6 inches taller than Saunders and weighs only 10 pounds less), size, experience, and ability to dominate. That’s irreplaceable for any team. The Chiefs can only hope other investments could at least soften the overall blow.