Defensive tackle Khalen Saunders has been an underrated player on the Kansas City Chiefs’ road to Super Bowl LVII. The fourth-year pro out of Western Illinois played in 16 games this season — setting career highs with sacks (3.5) and tackles (48).
He made his presence known in the Divisional Round of the postseason with a pressure on Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence that nearly resulted in an interception. Though he did not record the sack, he played a key role in the Jaguars starting the second half with a three-and-out while trailing the Chiefs 17-10.
If observers were unaware of Saunders, perhaps they will take notice after one of the most vocal Chiefs players praised him on Wednesday.
“I’ve seen Khalen Saunders develop into one of the best d-tackles in football,” Chiefs edge rusher Frank Clark declared at the team’s Super Bowl media availability. “Some people would kill me for saying that — but I’m saying it. I know football. I know players — and Khalen Saunders is that. I feel like he’s the real deal.
“I feel like there’s a lot of players who don’t get the love and attention because of the dynamic of our team. I feel like Khalen is definitely one of those players.”
Kansas City selected Saunders in the third round of the 2019 NFL draft. While he flashed potential as a rookie, Saunders’ development was stunted by injuries that limited him to only ten games across the next two seasons. He knows his health has cost him precious opportunities in his young career.
“Health plays a big part in that,” Saunders explained, “being able to actually be on the field, get some reps, and stuff like that. So coming into this year, I was just planning on kind of reintroducing myself as an athlete and a player. I hadn’t lost the athleticism, but I just haven’t had the opportunity to show it. So this year was big on that for me.”
Of course, there is a downside to a player breaking through in his fourth season: Saunders’ looming unrestricted free agency. His rookie contract ends after the final whistle blows on Sunday, potentially ending his time as a Chief.
He appeared hopeful the relationship can continue, citing soon-to-be two-time league MVP Patrick Mahomes as an incentive to stay.
“I love being here in Kansas City — especially when you have a quarterback like Pat,” said Saunders. “You get the opportunity to know you’re going to be able to compete for something greater every year. I love it.
“I’m close to home, being a St. Louis native. So it’s a blessing. I didn’t have any clue that Kansas City was interested in me before the pre-draft process. When Veach called me, it was like ‘Wow, I didn’t know you were looking at me.’ I’m happy to be here.”
Whether he stays in red-and-gold or sports new colors, his teammate on the defensive line expects his upward trajectory to continue.
“I feel like he’s going a player that’s going to wake a lot of people up,” Clark predicted. “He woke a lot of people up this year — but give that man a whole floor. Give that man a whole season to do what he do. His breakout season still hasn’t come. That boy — the things he’s able to do on the interior. His footwork — he’s got some of the best feet I’ve ever seen.”
If Sunday is his final game as a Chief, Saunders appreciates the opportunity Kansas City presented.
“I’m lucky — I’m blessed,” he reiterated. “I could never imagine being able to say I went to three Super Bowls in my first four years. I love Kansas City. It’s a great atmosphere. I’m a midwestern guy through and through anyway. I ain’t been nowhere but Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas. So that’s my whole career.”
Should he fail to find the best opportunity in the NFL, Clark hyped his abilities in a different sport.
“You know Khalen run point guard on the hoop team when we’re hooping?” the pass rusher revealed. “Khalen is the point guard. At the end of the day, when you have a 310-pound point guard pushing point up the court, that shows you what type of athlete he is.”