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Rookies Juan Thornhill and Khalen Saunders: different paths to the same road to KC

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Juan Thornhill and Khalen Saunders spoke to media ahead of Chiefs rookie minicamp on Saturday.

No. 22 and No. 99.

Those are the numbers on the jerseys of two of the Kansas City Chiefs’ defensive puzzle pieces from the 2019 NFL Draft: rookies Juan Thornhill, a safety out of Virginia, and Khalen Saunders, a defensive tackle out of Western Illinois.

Two different numbers—each chosen for personal reasons.

“One of my biggest inspirations was Aaron Donald, “ Saunders said of his fellow No. 99 of the Los Angeles Rams during Saunders’ first press conference Saturday. “He is number 99 and he kind of paved the way for shorter defensive linemen, and that’s what I am. I kind of looked up to him but now he’s about to be a rival or a competitor. But regardless of what happens, he kind of did pave the way for me and I respect him for that.”

“I was 21 in college so I was just like okay, I want to get as close to 21 as possible,” Thornhill said of his selection. “They said I had 22 and I was thinking that’s a good number to have because, like, for example, I was 21 in college and then you jump to 22 it means you’re taking a step up. So, getting number 22 is just symbolizing me taking a step up and bettering myself as a person and a player.”

Both standing at 6 feet, the 324-pound Saunders and 205-pound Thornhill bring different levels of physicality to the field.

Saunders showcases agility and speed.

“I will say that I do like to use my athleticism a little bit differently than everybody else, because I have a lot of lateral mobility compared to some of the other D-linemen in the league.” Saunders said. “So you know, if I can be untouched going to the quarterback, then of course that’s the goal. That leaves less injuries and leads to more sacks so I definitely like to be untouched going to the quarterback.”

Thornhill prides himself on versatility.

“Honestly, I am not really sure what coach (Reid) wants me to do, but whatever coach asks me to do, I will definitely step in,” Thornhill said after being drafted. “If he wants me to be the kicker, I’ll be the kicker. I’m very versatile and I can play multiple positions. So, if you see me at cornerback, I will step in and play that. If you see me at safety, I will step in and play safety, so I am willing to play whatever coach wants me to do.”

Diverse football experiences led them to the same road to Kansas City.

“Pretty much from starting at a very young age, being able to start as a sophomore, that kind of gave me a different kind of insight as far as playing because I got to see a lot of looks as opposed to a guy that went to a bigger school that might not get to play or start until junior or senior year” Saunders said. So, I was getting a lot of playing time my freshman year and sophomore year I was in a starting role, and just the ability to see all those different looks on the field, it kind of developed my technique very early.”

“Honestly, the reason I think I read things really well is because in high school I played quarterback and most of the time I can tell what quarterbacks are thinking just because I have the quarterback background and everything like that,” Thornhill said. “That definitely helped me out a lot. Just being able to see the quarterback’s eyes and make a play on the ball.”

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

And now that they’re here, in a position they’ve been dreaming and working toward their entire lives, they’re going to do everything it takes to prove themselves and earn their spots on this defensive roster.

“Going into the combine, I was thinking I had to make a statement because I know a bunch of coaches didn’t think I was athletic,” Thornhill said. “When I got there, like I said, wanted to make a statement and put on a show, especially with the 40 because a bunch of guys were just like, ‘I’m thinking he’s going to be a high 4.5 (seconds)’ so I wanted to run that low 4.4, and I got it. And then I knew about my vertical jump—I knew I was going to get a good vertical jump because I’ve been jumping my whole life, that’s just something I’m good at.”

Thornhill continued.

“I know jumping the 44-inch vertical, I impressed a lot of coaches obviously, and I had to impress this staff to get here. The way I think that helps me on the field is just being able to go out there and compete. Whenever the quarterback throws a jump ball to the receiver, I’m planning on going up and getting that football, just because I know I can jump. I’m very athletic—that’s going to keep me in position to make plays.”

“Drafted or undrafted, they always talk about it in the meetings you can get cut no matter if you went in the first round and you can make the team if you went undrafted, so I’m going to carry that chip no matter where I’m at,” Saunders said. “I came from [an] underdog university, so I’m going to keep that chip no matter what.”