Between now and Week 1 of last season, we’ve seen a plethora of things change on the Kansas City Chiefs’ defensive line. Rookies Tershawn Wharton and Mike Danna emerged as legitimate contributors, Tim Ward showed out in Week 17, and then the team signed Jarran Reed and drafted Joshua Kaindoh in the offseason. On top of all that, we’ve seen Chris Jones transition from the interior to defensive end.
The excitement for the new faces in the group naturally led to one young, talented defensive tackle becoming an afterthought: Khalen Saunders. In 2020, a Week 1 elbow injury led to him missing the next five games. After returning for Week 7, he became a gameday inactive for the rest of the season — outside of Week 17.
Entering his third NFL season, Saunders is using the lead-up to the 2021 regular season to show he can live up to the potential he had as a third-round selection in the 2019 draft.
“I knew coming into this year, I had to reintroduce myself on the field,” Saunders told reporters after practice on Monday. “That’s been my focus this offseason and preseason.”
He’s stood out so far. He had noticeably good training camp practices, then translated them to good play on the field in both exhibitions. It may feel like Saunders has taken his effort or performance to a different level, but he says it’s a natural progression for a player in their third training camp.
“I don’t think there was a click, I’ve always been this,” Reed asserted. “I don’t think there is any on/off switch for me. I got hurt in the very first game last year, didn’t get a chance to show my improvement from rookie year to that year. Now you’re getting a super load of last year and this year’s improvement.”
Saunders claims he’s always been this type of player on the field, but it’s not the only thing about his current situation that feels familiar. He’s used to being overshadowed; he overcame the odds as an FCS player at Western Illinois to get drafted. It’s just the next opportunity to overcome that kind of adversity.
“I’ve always been an underrated player,” Saunders pointed out. “Coming from a smaller school in the first place, I’ve always had to go above and beyond as opposed to guys coming from the FBS schools. It’s nothing new to me; it’s not unfamiliar territory for me to be underrated and go out and prove what I already know myself to be — and what people want me to be.”
On top of trying to prove himself to the fans and coaching staff as a third-year player, he has to get all the way back from an injury that definitely affected his play last season. He never had to get surgery, so it’s been a process to fully recover the ligaments and muscles in his elbow.
“The elbow was definitely a setback,” Saunders shared. “It was hard because I’m already an undersized defensive tackle, so using my hands is a big part of my game to keep those longer guys off me. I didn’t have the comfortability to strike people with that left elbow. It was definitely a setback, did a lot of work this offseason, strength training... I took that very seriously this offseason and came back to camp ready to reintroduce.”
He’s gotten a great opportunity to show off this preseason with the first-team defense — even though he likely won’t be starting when the regular season begins. Starting defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi has been held out of both games due to injury, and the defense has still looked very strong up front with Saunders in his place.
Saunders is grateful for the opportunity — even in a meaningless exhibition — but he’s a very self-aware, team-first player.
“Being able to start and getting a reward out of the work you put in, it’s rewarding,” Saunders admitted. “It’s a great feeling to go out there with the first team, but one thing I will say... I know I’m a rotational guy in this defense. I’m always going to play my part to the best of my ability — I don’t care if it’s a starter role or whatever it is.”
When Nnadi returns, Saunders will be second in line to enter the game, alongside Wharton on the interior. The young, talented duo has been making plays in the preseason games. They’re working to be as effective as the starters in front of them.
“We’re trying to make it look better. No disrespect to the guys out there at first, but we’re trying to make it look better,” Saunders explained. “Even when we come in second after them, [the opposing offensive line is] like, ‘Ah man, we got to deal with these guys for the rest of the game.’”
The defensive line is one of the most important positions to have quality depth at, and it sure looks like the Chiefs will be able to say they have that in 2021 based on the preseason.
Fans are excited about players like Jarran Reed and Tershawn Wharton — but Saunders could be just as big of an X factor on the defense this season.