What should the Kansas City Chiefs expect from Khalen Saunders in year two?

MIAMI, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 02: Khalen Saunders #99 of the Kansas City Chiefs warms up prior to Super Bowl LIV against the San Francisco 49ers at Hard Rock Stadium on February 02, 2020 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 02: Khalen Saunders #99 of the Kansas City Chiefs warms up prior to Super Bowl LIV against the San Francisco 49ers at Hard Rock Stadium on February 02, 2020 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /
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Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Khalen Saunders
KANSAS CITY, MO – DECEMBER 01: Defensive tackle Khalen Saunders #99 of the Kansas City Chiefs tackles running back Josh Jacobs #28 of the Oakland Raiders against during the second half at Arrowhead Stadium on December 1, 2019, in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images) /

Khalen Saunders 2019 film review

When Khalen Saunders first saw the field in 2019, there were plenty of struggles. The first few games were rough for the small school rookie. He was late off the snap, inconsistent when attempting to gain leverage, slower to process blocking schemes and get off of blocks—all as anyone could have expected.

Opposing offenses attacked right at Saunders in the run game with plenty of success. Against runs up the middle, he struggled to hold his gap, especially against double teams. Many of his issues here were due to his processing as he often didn’t see the double team coming. It allowed for the second blocker to get a clean hit on him. That resulted in Saunders getting pushed down the line of scrimmage or knocked down.

Other issues led to a big chunk of yards gained on this play against Green Bay. With Daniel Sorensen blitzing from the outside, defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon fails to get across the face of the left tackle, leaving the B gap open for the cutback lane. Linebacker Anthony Hitchens looks to be responsible for the opposite A gap between Saunders and Nnadi.

Because Saunders doesn’t see the double team coming, the left guard gets a clean hit on him moving him off of his gap. That provides the cutback lane for the running back. The left guard quickly can get off of Saunders and climb to the second level taking Hitchens out of the play.

When offenses ran to the outside, Saunders struggled to hold his gap as well. Blockers were able to perform reach blocks on him consistently. Being late off of the line of scrimmage gave offensive linemen a head start to get out in front of him and then seal him off from the gap. Whenever he looked into the backfield to keep an eye on the ball, his feet and hands didn’t continue to work fighting off his blocker, which also contributed to the problem.

As the season went along, Saunders made significant strides against the run. The consistency of his timing and ability to win the leverage battle early both improved. That consistency will still need to improve moving forward, but when comparing the beginning of his rookie season to the final stretch and in the playoffs, the difference is quite noticeable.

The flashes that Saunders displayed throughout the season showed just what he could do once he improves and becomes more consistent. Even in some of his early snaps, the rookie showed the explosion off of the line of scrimmage that we saw from him at the Senior Bowl and Western Illinois.

In that same game against the Packers, Saunders flashed the ability to work through the reach block. Too often, you would see the rookie trying to work over the top of blocks while giving up ground. He was unable to get off of blockers once they got into his frame.

In the play above, Saunders lined up as the 1-tech (shaded to one side of the center). Exploding off of the snap with great timing and leverage to stay under the center allows him to get under the armpit of the center. Once he has the center off-balance, Saunders extends his length by moving to a long arm attack to free up his chest and left arm. Pushing the center into the run lane, he grabs ahold of the running back once there is nowhere for him to go.

Against the Denver Broncos, one play in particular stood out, showing the balance, athleticism, and powerful hands that make him unique. Saunders does a great job exploding into the left guard, resetting the line of scrimmage. Understanding that Phillip Lindsay wants to run inside the A gap with the center climbing to the second level, he flashes his helmet to the inside while swatting the guard’s hands to the side, throwing him off balance.

Forcing Lindsay to cut outside, Saunders finishes off the guard by changing directions once again as the guard tries to recover. With the guard being off-balance, Saunders once again tosses him to the side, while changing direction to the outside. He grabs Lindsay with his outside arm, stopping him dead in his tracks.

Later in the season, Spagnuolo deployed Saunders as the backup 3-tech behind Jones. Allowing him to play with more space and attack a single gap made a big difference. It enables him to focus on one gap and use his athleticism to win his assignment. Here is an excellent example in one of his best games, where he absorbs the block from the right tackle and anchoring down in his gap. Using his tremendous upper body strength, he throws the right guard out of the way to stuff the run.

Pass Rush

Primarily used on early downs to attack the run, Saunders saw limited snaps his rookie season against the pass. His pass rush will be a significant focal point for finding improvement in year two. Winning at the college level with pure dominance with no regard to technique will not work in the NFL.

Several areas need to be worked on to improve in this area. Similar to the run game, Saunders will have to improve his play recognition and understanding of pass sets. Most of his pass rush attempts consisted of a side stutter step into a bull rush or a power club type move. Building upon his hand fighting technique to develop more pass rush counters and having a plan pre-snap will go a long way in this department.

The physical tools are all there for him to build upon. If he can improve his timing off of the snap, he has the initial burst to test blockers. His quickness, balance, body control, and pure power are all impressive and can be a nightmare for offensive linemen if he continues to improve upon his technique.