Chiefs head coach Andy Reid explained Khalen Saunders’ lack of playing time on Monday.
For the last several weeks, the single biggest surprise on the list of inactive players for the Kansas City Chiefs has been defensive tackle Khalen Saunders. The lineman has been healthy and ready to return to the field since recovering from an elbow injury in Week 1, but instead he’s found himself on the sidelines without a chance to even substitute in.
The plotline for Saunders’ second season in the NFL is running contrary to expectations given his ceiling coming into the league. As the Chiefs third round pick of the 2019 NFL Draft, Saunders was referred to as “the Aaron Donald of the FCS“, a rare package of strength, size, and athleticism.
There’s certainly still room for Saunders to grow into the sort of player envisioned by the Chiefs front office before his selection, but a player generally takes a major leap forward in his second year. The game often slows in the sophomore year, as the nerves settle and instincts kick in for a player. Many rookies tend to overthink things at the pro level, as they try to get everything right while responding at a much higher speed.
Unfortunately for Saunders, he’s not had much of a chance to even show how much he’s learned or developed. He played 8 snaps in Week 1 before dislocating his elbow, and he returned to the field in Week 7 against the Denver Broncos for an additional 15 snaps. He hasn’t played since then.
On Monday, Andy Reid was asked whether or not it was Saunders’ injury that has kept him sidelined or whether he’s simply a healthy scratch on game days. Reid said it was a mixture of several elements.
"“That and some of the other guys that have been in there have done okay. You put one up, you gotta put one down. That’s one of the negatives about if you get injured, if somebody steps in and does pretty good, that’s what goes on. But he’s a good football player. His time will come here.”"
The Chiefs added Mike Pennel back from a two-game suspension shortly after Saunders first went down, while rookie free agent Tershawn Wharton turned into a meaningful contributor as well. Given that Chris Jones and Derrick Nnadi aren’t going anywhere, Reid seems to be saying there’s only so many snaps to go around inside.
That said, Saunders being outplayed by a run-stuffing journeyman vet and an undrafted free agent was not something anyone saw coming in 2020. Saunders played in 12 games and even started four of them last year for K.C. and had 22 tackles, 3 pressures, 1 sack, and 1 pass deflection. Given his mammoth frame, it was exciting to envision what he could become for the Chiefs d-line.
Saunders still has time to grow and show the Chiefs what he can do. He’s locked up for two more seasons after this one. For now, however, it looks as if the Chiefs prefer the horses that brought them this far.