Many wrote Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Khalen Saunders off before the 2022 season. Now, we see his impact and potential when healthy.
The Kansas City Chiefs had a seemingly easy choice when it came to defensive tackle Khalen Saunders after this season. Let his rookie deal end, and move on. After all, the fourth-year veteran had only played in 10 games since the 2019 season, with little impact in those opportunities.
Injuries and inconsistency had sapped the freakish athlete of his NFL outlook. Once called the “Aaron Donald of FCS“, Saunders seemed destined to be a what-if story of the Chiefs. Now, everything has changed for Saunders.
Saunders has caught fans’ eyes this season, especially with three sacks in the past three games. His motor and determination to make a play fit a player playing for his career. He has taken full advantage of the opportunities given to him. Tershawn Wharton’s season-ending injury and Derrick Nnadi’s lackluster play opened a depth chart door behind Chris Jones.
Saunders has already reached career-highs in tackles, sacks, and pressures. All that in 207 snaps, nearly 100 less than his rookie season. Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo noted Saunder’s improved play after the Chiefs’ Week 10 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
"“I think his play tick went up this last game,” Spagnuolo said in his Thursday press conference. “We talked about that in preparation week last week. He certainly deserves that, he has played well, he stands out. Of course, anytime you get sacks, everyone starts to notice — but he has done a lot of other good things in the run game that have really helped us. I like the way Khalen has progressed this year.”"
A lot of offseason factors have helped Saunders progress as Spagnuolo talked about. A healthy start to offseason programs, a job in jeopardy, and new coaching are just the start for Saunders’ changes. The Chiefs added defensive line coach Joe Cullen this offseason, and Saunders has quickly impressed Saunders since joining the team.
"“Khalen has worked extremely hard since the first day I met him,” Cullen said Thursday. “He has lost weight, he got himself in excellent football shape, he came back in tip-top shape and he has really gotten better… staying strong in the weight room.”"
Beyond his impact this season, the question remains if the Chiefs will retain Saunders. Their path was much simpler when Saunders was struggling. Now, if he continues to be an important depth player, the Chiefs have more options. Nnadi is a free agent after this season, and Wharton could take a while to recover. Saunders’ emergence may be just what the Chiefs needed, for 2022 and beyond.
Nonetheless, Saunders is playing like a player who deserves an extension. How large that could be remains to be seen. But Saunders’ career was once in question. He has turned his projections around from bust to boom. The Chiefs can now reap the benefits of his boom.