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Khalen Saunders’ development has impressed Chiefs coaching staff

The coaches that know the young defensive tackle best are loving what they’re getting out of him.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The defense of the Kansas City Chiefs turned a page this offseason, which led to the youth wave you see in the starting lineup today. The big-name veterans are seemingly the only holdovers from the previous phase.

However, there is one breakout player that has been with the organization since defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was first hired: defensive tackle Khalen Saunders. The fourth-year lineman has turned into a key rotational piece, earning more and more snaps as the year has gone on.

“I think his play tick went up this last game,” Spagnuolo noted to reporters 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.”

Saunders’ box score has started to fill up: he has earned at least half a sack in each of the last three games, along with two tackles for loss in total during that stretch. That’s good production for a player that roughly sees 40% of the defense’s snaps.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a credit to Spagnuolo and defensive line coach Joe Cullen for making sure a progressing player was getting the runway to experience that development. He earned it back in the offseason, when Cullen noticed Saunders in a positive way.

“Khalen has worked extremely hard since the first day I met him,” Cullen shared with reporters on 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.”

That improved fitness could be a key to a much more consistent impact this season than previous ones, where Saunders may flash — but rarely. This year, it feels like he flashes every snap he takes, whether it’s against the run or pass.

He is the leader in tackles among the defensive line (30) despite playing less than nearly all of the other linemen. That’s because Saunders has a nose for the football, using his unique movement skills to always be involved in the tackle.

“He has really worked hard on the field,” Cullen insisted. “He is very smart as a football player, knows what to do — but he is playing at a high level because the game has slowed down for him. He’s just really working hard.”

That hard work has been a key factor in the Chiefs’ defense stifling the last two opponents, and it will continue to be an important part of how Kansas City wins.

The unsung hero of the defense is also playing this way at the right time because his rookie deal expires in the offseason. At this rate, the Chiefs won’t be the only ones interested in his talents.

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