Editor’s note: This is our third film review of the Chiefs’ 2019 draft class. If you missed our review of second-round wide receiver Mecole Hardman, click here. If you missed our review of second-round safety Juan Thornhill, click here.
After addressing wide receiver and safety with the first two picks in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Kansas City Chiefs saw value at defensive tackle with Khalen Saunders. According to general manager Brett Veach, they were surprised to see him still on the board at pick 84.
VEACH: “All three of these guys are really, really good football players and had you told me before the night started we’d end up with these three players, I wouldn’t have believed it because we had all three of these guys as high 2’s, and to get two of them in 2, and then to get Saunders to fall to 3, we were really surprised that he was still on the board. He was a guy that was in the mix at 63.”
Defensive tackle was a position that made some sense in the draft if the value was there. The Chiefs currently only have nose tackle Derrick Nnadi under contract for the 2020 season, and they lost some of their pass-rush potential by not re-signing Allen Bailey.
While some may look at Saunders’ size and think that he is similar to Nnadi, his playstyle isn’t necessarily as a block-absorbing nose tackle. He’s a penetrating lineman that can spell Chris Jones as a 3-technique, and a player that can line up next to Jones on obvious passing downs.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at what Saunders brings to the table in the Chiefs front and the attributes that made Veach and the Chiefs scouts fall in love with him.
Western Illinois DT Khalen Saunders
6’0” | 324 lbs.
Khalen Saunders' first step explosiveness makes it very difficult to down block him. The center pulls and the right guard blocks the backside 3 tech. The left guard is supposed to reach Saunders, but his first step beats the reach block and forces an errant throw on the slant. pic.twitter.com/50CpMaz3Pk— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) April 29, 2019
Some may know Saunders as the “backflip guy”, and may wonder if the gimmick translates to the field. I’m here to tell you that his explosion is for real, and it definitely does.
Many offenses tried to get creative with their blocking schemes and get pulling blockers out in front of the play, but Saunders made life difficult. Reach blocking with a guard is incredibly difficult with Saunders’ first step, and it shows up in a big way on this RPO. The center pulls to space, leaving the guard to have to reach a full gap over to get to Saunders. Instead, the guard is chasing as Saunders climbs to the quarterback, forces the timing of the throw and gets himself a quarterback hit.
One of the things that we saw often at Senior Bowl practices was Saunders putting first round pick Chris Lindstrom on skates with his explosion off the snap. The power is evident, and this rep also shows his lack of length, as Lindstrom recovers, locks out, and kills the rush. pic.twitter.com/aBNPskylHM— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) April 29, 2019
Saunders’ skill set didn’t just dominate a lower level of competition. It showed up regularly when we saw him in person at the Senior Bowl. He matched up often against a top-15 pick in Chris Lindstrom in practice and routinely crushed the pocket with his initial explosion.
This clip does highlight one of the negative aspects of Saunders’ game: his length. He is a shorter, squat player with short arms and offensive linemen can lock him out with a full arm extension. Even though Saunders gets the initial “win” on this rep, Lindstrom’s recovery, arm extension and lockout prevents Saunders from finishing the rep free to the quarterback. It’s still a great rep — the quarterback is certainly uncomfortable with the player in his lap — but it is something that could show up on Sundays.
The explosion Saunders exhibits is real, and it translates to the next level. His ability to get off the snap quickly will give reach blockers fits, and we should see him regularly collapsing the pocket. However, he’s not just a straight-line defender.
Saunders has great lateral agility and can make blockers miss with looping rushes. On this play, he has double A gap responsibility for the running QB. When pass is identified, he gives a shoulder fake and darts across the body of the OC, getting upfield and forcing the scramble. pic.twitter.com/uDLgORv6bw— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) April 29, 2019
Saunders also has fantastic lateral agility for a man his size — something that will pay dividends with the stunts and twists that Steve Spagnuolo and Brendan Daly will look to implement.
On the above play, Saunders has initial contain against a running quarterback. He identifies pass and gives a jab/shoulder fake to the center, then easily climbs across the face of the blocker. This hesitation-burst combined with a chop gets Saunders free into the backfield for a pressure.
The amount of ground Saunders can cover with his lateral agility makes him a very tough player to block, and the straight-line explosion lends itself well to getting him in space. Combined, he should play well in the Chiefs’ rush misdirection games.
Saunders isn't just a big guy, he'll make himself skinny and make blockers miss. He slips right past Ole Miss guard Javon Patterson with a slick arm over move to get into the backfield and secure the sack in the Senior Bowl. pic.twitter.com/mKAcnCpH3Q— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) April 29, 2019
Saunders does not move like a 320-plus pound man should move.
Saunders hits Ole Miss guard Javon Patterson with an outside feint to make him set and then uses his lateral quickness to get back across the left guard’s face. He makes himself skinny while climbing the pocket and chops the blocker’s inside hand to clear it. An arm over and burst toward the quarterback led to an easy sack of Drew Lock in the Senior Bowl game.
Spagnuolo is comfortable with a large 3-technique that has functional agility — he played the 320-pound Johnathan Hankins there regularly — and Saunders has that agility and burst in spades.
Strength and leverage
Saunders shows up regularly in the run game as a playside defender. He gets low and wins the leverage game initially on the G/C combo block. As the guard climbs, Saunders gets to half man, peeks at the mesh point to see the handoff, then penetrates upfield for the TFL. pic.twitter.com/a5kXhU2D6r— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) April 29, 2019
While Saunders may not have the anchor against double teams that you’d like to see yet, he’s still plenty strong. The above play is indicative of his impact as a run defender, which also translates well to a one-gap, penetrating system.
Saunders gets off the snap quickly and wins the leverage battle. A combo block sees the right guard climb to the second level, leaving just the center blocking Saunders. Saunders works to half man and keeps his eyes in the backfield, identifying the handoff at the mesh point. He clears the center’s hands and chops to throw him forward, getting upfield for the stop.
Saunders shows excellent strength and leverage, particularly in the early phases of the game before his lack of conditioning shows up. An NFL program should get him in even better shape, and this strength should show up throughout the game.
We were lucky enough to see Saunders at Senior Bowl practices, and this was one of our favorite reps. His time as a RB in high school show up in his feet and balance, and he's able to punch into the chest and drive the guard to the QB while his weight was well in front of him. pic.twitter.com/wMRTIpUa4F— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) April 29, 2019
By now, you’ve probably heard that Saunders was a 285-pound running back in high school. You can see it in the agility and explosiveness that we’ve talked about above. However, where it might have the most impressive translation is through his contact balance.
Defensive tackles have to sort through all kinds of trash at the line of scrimmage and regularly can lose their balance while navigating all the legs and feet that are in the tackle box. Saunders shows an ability to keep his feet and continue his pass rush rep, as shown above.
When the members of the AP Draft Team saw Saunders at the Senior Bowl, we were impressed by all of the movement traits that he showed, but this was by far my favorite rep that he took in practice. Against new Detroit Lions guard Beau Benzschawel, Saunders jumps off the snap, tilts his pad angle and drives his punch into the chest of the guard. Benzschawel has the length advantage and tries to pull Saunders forward for a pancake. Instead, Saunders is able to continue the rush by driving his feet and keeping his balance, despite being dragged to the ground.
This combination of balance and strength to continue the power rush from this angle is highly uncommon. It’s not a teachable trait, and it’s not one that very many defensive lineman have in their arsenal. Saunders will win reps just because of his ability to stay on his feet and fight through contact, making for another element of a pass rush that will come in waves.
The bottom line
Saunders is a huge man that moves like a much smaller man, yet still has the strength of a big interior lineman. He is a raw player with room to grow — much like second-round pick Mecole Hardman. Also like Hardman, he’s got good football IQ and some mind-boggling physical attributes for Daly and Spagnuolo to mold and shape to their defense.
Saunders should be in the rotation to spell Chris Jones — Jones only plays around 65% of the snaps — and can line up next to him on obvious passing downs. He’s not a Derrick Nnadi replacement, as Nnadi is more of a true nose tackle than Saunders. Saunders adds another penetrating defensive lineman to the Chiefs front that can slide into multiple spots and keep the front fresh.
With his agility and explosion, Saunders can play both ends of the stunts up front — looping or driving a blocker to free someone else up to rush the passer cleanly. Most importantly to me, he adds yet another player that can win a one-on-one matchup in the front four.
He’s a fun interview as well—a very charismatic person. He’s going to endear himself quickly to Chiefs fans with his actions both on and off the field, and could easily become someone’s “favorite Chief” in the very near future.
The Chiefs added another high-character, rare athlete to their front in the third round of the draft. I think we can all get excited about that.