In order for the K.C. Chiefs defensive line to reach its true potential, the team needed to see something significant from Khalen Saunders. According to defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the defensive tackle is making the sort of leap the team’s coaches have been hoping for in training camp.
Saunders is a very intriguing prospect who, even after two years at the pro level, has yet to turn the proverbial corner. It was understood when the Chiefs drafted him in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft that Saunders was going to need some time before utilizing his very rare blend of size, strength, and athleticism to great effect, especially given that he was coming from the demanding competition against the Western Illinois Leathernecks.
Last year, however, the emergence of Turk Wharton and an untimely elbow injury essentially cost Saunders his second season as the Chiefs often left him a healthy scratch even after returning at midseason. Instead of returning to reclaim his job, Wharton held down nearly 50 percent of all defensive snaps himself, and when combined with Derrick Nnadi and Mike Pennel, there was simply not room for someone else next to Chris Jones.
Khalen Saunders’ emergence comes at the right time for the Chiefs.
Fast forward to the next spring and it sounds as if Saunders is making the leap that coaches have been waiting for. When asked about the young players on the defense, Spagnuolo recently told reporters that Saunders was someone to watch.
"”I’ll tell you, Khalen Saunders, because he missed a lot of last year,” Spagnuolo said. “You know, he had the elbow, so it’ll be good to get him up and going again. I’m going through the Rolodex, obviously all of the young guys, but Khalen sticks out."
This is a vital area of growth for the Chiefs, albeit one that flies under the radar. The Chiefs have made the decision to shift Jones outside at times to rush from the edge instead of serving as an interior disruptor. They can do this because the team also signed Jarran Reed to bolster things inside. Together with Frank Clark on the other side, the Chiefs are hoping that a fresh face and some versatility up front can generate a better pass rush.
However, what’s going to be important are keeping guys rotating in with the talent to maximize their opportunities. Mike Danna is earning rave reviews for his growth this offseason, and Turk Wharton looks even better after an offseason of yoga and pilates. Given that Pennel is not back with the team, the Chiefs could really use someone to step up in that role if Saunders wants it and it sounds like he’s ready.
Let’s not forget that Saunders was once nicknamed the Aaron Donald of the FCS, and the belief was that his eventual ceiling could be sky high. If the Chiefs are watching another impact performer begin to emerge in the middle, it’s going to keep opposing linemen honest when lining up against the likes of Jones and Reed. Even more, when it comes time to make future decisions, given that Reed is only signed for a single season, Saunders’ presence is going to give the front office some flexibility knowing he’s around through 2022.
The Chiefs will need to see Saunders start to put things together in the preseason games instead of lighter practices in training camp, but it sounds as if he’s looking the part. His emergence will help the Chiefs defensive line live up to their potential and keep offensive lines tired after facing K.C.’s front line for a full 60 minutes.