Under Pressure: It’s Make-or-Break Time for Khalen Saunders

After three years, the next month-plus will help determine the future of Saunders.

The Khalen Saunders arc has experienced its fair share of ups and downs, and it got off to an inspiring start.

When the Chiefs used their 2019 third-round draft pick on Saunders, they were bringing in a local (St. Louis, MO) talent who possessed intriguing athletic talent and was coming off a productive career at Western Illinois. As a rookie in Steve Spagnuolo’s defense, the 324-pounder amassed 22 tackles, a sack and a pass broken up in 12 games. He didn’t jump off the page in terms of stats, but he did enough to offer some promise for the future. 

Aug 14, 2021; Santa Clara, California, USA; Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Khalen Saunders (99) stands on the sideline during the third quarter against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Since then, however, he has yet to match even that introductory level of production from three years ago.

Injuries got in Saunders’ way in 2020 and 2021, as elbow and knee ailments limited his playing time and led to him getting lost in the shuffle of Kansas City’s depth chart. In the two seasons since his rookie campaign, Saunders has played in just 10 games overall and has a combined 11 tackles. He hasn’t recorded a single sack over the course of that span, nor has he logged a quarterback hit. His last start came in 2020. 

The Chiefs’ defensive line saw some changes this offseason, but not too many of them came along the interior. Chris Jones is back at his traditional three-technique spot, and Derrick Nnadi is projected to start alongside him yet again as Spagnuolo’s nose tackle. Behind them, free agent acquisition Taylor Stallworth figures to bring some healthy competition to the position group. Tershawn Wharton has shown legitimate flashes as an undersized pass-rusher. All of those players should make the team. Where does that leave Saunders?

Under pressure.

As training camp and the preseason approach, it will be up to Saunders to produce at a high level and remind the Chiefs of the player they spent a Day Two draft pick on years ago. If he can’t, it’ll be either another year buried on the bench or a possibly a late-summer shift to the free agent market. Not only is Saunders tasked with proving the Chiefs right, but he’s tasked with doing the same for himself as well. Additionally, the fact that his rookie contract expires following the 2022 campaign raises the stakes even higher.

Conner Christopherson of Arrowhead Report joined me on Thursday’s Roughing the Kicker podcast to discuss our initial Chiefs 53-man roster projections. Of the two of us, only he had Saunders making the cut. I listed Saunders as a name on the bubble, as his job isn’t nearly as secure as it has been in the recent past. He has the opportunity to stick, but he’s also facing quite the challenge in getting back to his better form.

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