In the Rookie Rewind series, we’re taking a look at Kansas City Chiefs players after their first season in the league, focusing specifically their development — and areas that led to improvement or regression in their play. How did they improve from Week 1 — or even college — to the end of their first season? And what does that say about their future?
Defensive tackle Khalen Saunders excited analysts as a draft prospect with his engaging personality, his strong showing at the Senior Bowl and highlight videos of him doing backflips on the football field. After the excitement calmed down and camp hit for the Kansas City Chiefs, it appeared as if Saunders was going to need to catch up to the speed of the game and the major step-up in competition. That grace period came to an end when the Chiefs’ defensive line suffered a few injuries, and the depth had to be tested in the middle of the season. Saunders was thrust into a near-full-time role early in his rookie season, and that developmental time went out the window as he went from playing zero snaps a game to playing roughly half at the drop of a dime.
Unlike the two previous reviews, this Saunders review will include some early-season charting and examples because of the total snap counts he played. The emphasis will still be on his growth and improvement throughout the year and how he was able to help the Chiefs win the Super Bowl.
As Mike Pennell emerged, Saunders returned to more of a rotational player. That being said, let’s rewind this rookie and look at what Saunders was able to accomplish.
Saunders started the year without netting any snaps in the first four weeks but then a round of injuries to Chris Jones, Xavier Williams, and Alex Okafor hit, and Saunders was suddenly in the mix. During this midseason stretch, Saunders played over 40% of the Chiefs snaps in five straight weeks.
At first, Saunders looked like a rookie that was jumping up in competition from a small-school college to the NFL way too quickly. The game appeared to be moving a little too fast for Saunders at times during this initial stretch, but he was still able to provide valuable reps when the Chiefs needed them. As the Chiefs got healthier, Saunders saw his usage reduced to situations that better suited his strengths.
Saunders had some difficulty getting out of the blocks during his midseason stint, and with that came some difficulty stopping outside zone runs or threatening an offense as a pass rusher. He appeared to be thinking a little too much at the time of the snap, and that put him behind in the play too often. That is not unexpected for a player coming from a small school, but it’s something he will need to improve to stay heavily in the defensive line rotation.
For this review, I included one of Saunders midseason games in the charting to try and get a broader sense of how he was being used throughout the year.
Khalen Saunders Rookie Rewind— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) June 11, 2020
Forced into early playing time with DL injuries, saw his snap count peak mid-season and return to a rotational role as players returned.
Like most DTs in Spags system, significant difference in snaps on standard vs passing downs. Highest % at 3T pic.twitter.com/O5ow223mNm
A few things that jumped out: Saunders was predominantly used on standard downs and as the season went on, he became more of the back-up 3-tech rather than a nose tackle. Passing downs consisted of second-and-8 or more yards, third-and-5 or more yards, and any fourth down. Every other down counted as a standard down, and while the slip is quite drastic, the Steve Spagnuolo defensive philosophy often pulls defensive tackles off the field for defensive ends that can play inside on those third-down passing downs.
As for the transition from over 50% of his reps as a nose tackle to over 75% as a 3-tech, I’d highlight two reasons:
- First of all, the emergence of Mike Pennell to the defensive line rotation occurred, which gave the Chiefs two high-performing nose tackles.
- Secondly, Saunders struggled to play the run early in the year.
Mid-season it was more common, but there were still some times down the stretch Saunders got behind on the rep/caught peeking at the ball and got reached and turned.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) June 12, 2020
Playing w/ his power and leverage consistently through the reach rather than giving ground should improve w/ xp pic.twitter.com/FUn19DVhhH
Even later in the season, Saunders still struggled with getting reached by offensive linemen. As the nose tackle, he can’t afford to let a single block reach him and seal him off from the play side of the run, and he especially can’t give up five yards trying to work over the top of the block. There is still time to improve this.
Whether the run is to his side or away from him, Saunders does need to work on the recognition speed and how to play through the block to reduce the run gap if he’s going to play more often as the nose tackle for Spagnuolo.
Favorite trait of Saunders is his balance/body control— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) June 11, 2020
Explodes into OG to set LoS, reads OZ and works feet and hips around the block. Ins hand gets under the armpit of the OG and he drops his pads to get leverage and control.
Takes the double push but is able to plant & turn. pic.twitter.com/F3bRJNbiqW
Moving Saunders out to a 3-tech puts him in a little more space and allows him to utilize his athleticism a little more rather than asking him to be a stout, power-only play. His body control and balance allow him to work off of blocks as long as he can keep his hips underneath him.
Rather than having to squeeze down through a blocker, Saunders is able to attack the outside arm of the offensive guard and absorb the double-team block. His ability to keep his base and redirect — while using his hands to keep his chest clean — allows him to turn back and make the tackle after he strung out the initial running angle.
Combination of the body control and leverage, Saunders does a good job reacting to a ball carrier if he gets a blocker off his chest. Good use 1 arm longer than 2— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) June 11, 2020
Has good enough power to keep his chest clear and the feet to work laterally off a block when extended. pic.twitter.com/DosUO5cLc8
Saunders’ path to excelling as a run defender in the NFL is by using his leverage to hold the line of scrimmage and then tapping into his athleticism to work around and off of blocks.
As his technique continues to improve, he will only become better. This was a great example of using a single arm to win the length battle despite having shorter arms than most of his counterparts. As long as he continues to develop his hand usage like this and works on his consistency at timing the snap, he should develop into a quality run defender.
Saunders may not have the length to dominate doubles at the LoS, but he got a lot better as the year went on handling the initial double contact.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) June 11, 2020
Early year - slow off the blocks, doesn't set LoS, and never sees the double coming.
The improvement by the playoffs was significant pic.twitter.com/6nbjoS0eDu
I don’t want to over-emphasize the snap get-off Saunders struggled with early in the year, but it was critical. Whether it came as a result of some early-career butterflies or simply thinking too much, when you don’t have elite size, you can’t get behind in reps, as Saunders can do at times. It got much better as the year went along but still wasn’t as consistent as you’d like to see. It is part of what makes it a little difficult to see him playing 1-tech moving forward.
Early in the year, Saunders looked to be thinking too much at the snap. Not firing off with the same explosion he did in college - or at the Senior Bowl - but showed vast improvement later in the year.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) June 11, 2020
Drop hips, load elbows, punch-lift then the body control to slide to tackle pic.twitter.com/bXxY26Fm0L
Some defensive tackles are simply stone walls eating space at the line of scrimmage. Others are too quick to get your hands on, and then there are the types, like Saunders, who excel as sliding off the blocker. As long as Saunders puts himself in a good position before contact, his body control, leverage and lateral agility make him incredibly slippery and difficult to block.
The one area I'm most excited to see Saunders growth from his rookie year to his second year is as a pass rusher. The improvement he showed from week 5 to the playoffs as a run defender was immense, another season with Daly and hopefully the pass rush plan follows suit. pic.twitter.com/LBlgvR1STF— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) June 12, 2020
Up until now, these have all been run clips, and there is a reason for that.
Saunders’ pass-rush reps all look very similar — a moderate first step out of his stance, a high pad level and a little shimmy step into a bull rush or club move. It isn’t surprising that Saunders saw limited success pass rusher.
This is a step that you hope is made from year one to year two as he catches up to the speed of the game and can focus on playing rather thinking on every snap.
The bottom line: expectations in 2020
The difference in Saunders’ performance early in the season with a substantial amount of reps to later in the year with much more limited reps was quite different. Saunders might have improved more than any Chief throughout the course of 2019.
The lack of experience and lower level of competition showed early in the season, but by the time the home stretch rolled around, Saunders was up for the task. It seems safe to pencil him as the back-up 3-tech given where most of his success came from. Plus, Derrick Nnadi and Pennell have the nose tackle position locked down.
There isn’t much of a chance Saunders steals many reps from Nnadi, Pennell or Jones, but a complementary piece to Jones as a sound run defender could certainly be his future. If the Chiefs are to move on from Jones in 2021, Saunders might be asked to take on a larger role.
To prove to be an able successor, he will have to show more consistency overall and improve his pass-rush skill set tenfold. Saunders’ visible improvement in year one should leave those watching with confidence he’s a quality run-defending player with plenty of room to grow.