Name: Khalen Saunders
Position: Defensive Tackle
School: Western Illinois
Khalen Saunders is an intriguing prospect as a compact, productive nose with plus athleticism inside. He has some major flashes to his game, including against top prospects at the Senior Bowl, which should alleviate concerns that his FCS competition aided his impressive game tape.
Saunders’ squatty frame is both a potential detriment to his draft stock and a benefit to his game. He is somewhat long for his height, but that is not saying much, given that he barely checks in at 6-feet tall. That said, he carries a lot of weight in a compact frame, and he carries it well. Whatever “bad” weight Saunders has does not affect his ability to move much, so long as he maintains conditioning. When he has his wind, Saunders is one of the quicker nose prospects in the class. It is possible his lack of length will inhibit early success, but Saunders’ low center-of-gravity and overall mass should be an asset to his career.
Because of his frame, Saunders is able to fire off low and get leverage advantage. His punches and slaps are strong, and he is able to get a push when he drives his legs effectively. However, for someone as big as he is, Saunders is strangely more of a finesse player. He is more wont to move around blocks then drive through them or manipulate his man. His power comes in his ability to clear hands and shed blocks, not so much through his push. Saunders is also a bit susceptible to conditioning issues, mitigating his power. The below clip was from early in the second against Illinois, yet he already seems to be in fourth quarter mode.
Saunders’ back flip was the viral hit of Senior Bowl weekend, but that athleticism translates to more than just impressive feats. Saunders is freakishly quick in tight spaces for someone his size, and has solid straight line speed, as well. His 40 time was just a tick over five seconds, and he posted some of the best agility drills among pure nose prospects at the combine. This clip from the combine shows how well Saunders can move. Granted, this is in spandex, but he is much quicker and smoother than one would expect from a guy his size.
Khalen Saunders really out here looking like a receiver. pic.twitter.com/yvq2YBcTXH— Carter Donnick (@CDonScouting) March 3, 2019
Saunders’ get-off is solid, which helps mitigate his length issues. He can deliver a quick blow, then slap hands to discard his man and he has the short-area quickness to get around blocks and to the ball-carrier. Against reach and down blocks, Saunders has good awareness to fire into a good run fit and gain advantageous positioning. This works well against double teams, as his quickness often gets him good leverage against the down block before blockers can swallow him up. His preferred action against zone blocks is to slap hands away before contact and dart around the block.
When it comes to anchor and motor, Saunders is only so-so. His low center-of-gravity should lend itself to strong base, but he rarely wins straight-up power battles up front. He also has a tendency to get too high when he gets into more open space which opens him up to getting finished around the ball. The below clip is a good example of Saunders clearing his man with a quick slap, but then meandering high to the ball, and thus ending up on the ground.
That aside, his backside pursuit is usually strong. He has impressive straight line speed and takes good angles to the ball. 13 tackles for loss is nothing to sneeze at for a nose tackle, and that is indicative of his play-making abilities.
Saunders’ pass rushing takes on the same attributes of his run defense. That is, mostly finesse, susceptible to stonewalling if locked into a battle of strength. Many of Saunders’ highlights as a pass rusher come from his quickness surprising his opponent. Look no further than the Senior Bowl, where Saunders set up his man with a quick stem before utilizing his patented slap-swim move, burning the blocker across face for the easy sack.
Saunders posted 14 sacks his last two seasons, an impressive number for a nose tackle. Much of his plan comes down to one of a few things: speed off the snap, slap and swim or bend and rip through. He has hand-fighting potential, given his strong slap and hand-clearing moves. However, Saunders is not one to re-set and counter. His length does not lend itself much to any push-pull moves, and he has not had much success as a bull rusher. At this point in his development, Saunders is an interior speed rusher. His frame and power potential leaves hope he can add some more power moves to his arsenal, but for now, the quick twitch cuts and the slap-swim are his meal tickets.
The Vikings have drafted a defensive tackle in the fourth in each of the last two seasons. Neither Jaleel Johnson nor Jalyn Holmes has flashed in meaningful game time yet, so it would seem the Vikings are still on the hunt for that potential starter on its defensive interior. Saunders is still fairly raw. He needs to work on conditioning as well as some of his technique in terms of anchor and power. However, his quickness for his size is tremendous, and makes him a threat to push a rotation spot right away.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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