KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There are six weeks until the 2021 NFL draft, and in order to prepare for this year’s draft, FOX4 Sports is doing something a little different.
Producer Robert Rimpson is counting down Brett Veach’s top 10 draft picks as the Chiefs’ general manager. While the sample is limited to three drafts and 18 picks, this will hopefully not only provide an informative perspective on some of Veach’s best picks, but it may also give a good look at what the Chiefs do in this year’s draft.
The players are evaluated in three areas: Their play on the field, how high their remaining potential is, and their value based on where they (and other players in their class) were drafted. The players get letter grades (‘A+’ being the best, ‘F-‘ being the worst) and at the end he reflects on how the player will impact the Chiefs’ 2021 draft.
#9 — Khalen Saunders
Play on field
Khalen Suanders played an important role for the Chiefs his rookie season. In 2019, Saunders provided depth at defensive tackle and was part of the defensive line rotation the Chiefs used to stop the run. Saunders played in 12 games his rookie season, started four of those games and played in 27% of the defensive snaps that year. In those 12 games, Saunders accumulated 22 total tackles, one sack and two QB hits.
His play, along with other defensive tackles the Chiefs rotated that season, helped solve the issues the Chiefs were having stopping the run early on, and ultimately helped them win the Super Bowl.
That being said, in 2020 Saunders was less than impressive. He missed the majority of the 2020 with an elbow dislocation he suffered in Week 1, and despite making a return from the injured reserve ahead of Week 7, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid limited Saunders play due to the injury still bothering him on top of the emergence of Tershawn Wharton.
Saunders played in three games in 2020, he started in the last game of the regular season and only had three total tackles.
Saunders proved he could be a key rotational player for the Chiefs as soon as he stepped on the field as a rookie. His combination of power and surprising agility alone gives him a pretty high ceiling.
However, Saunders’ elbow injury derailed what could’ve been his path to eventually being a starter. Now that he’s on the outside of the D-line rotation looking in, it’s hard to see how Saunders could have much room to grow without a change to the roster.
Saunders was drafted in the third round of the 2019 NFL draft with the 84th pick, and as such was likely expected to become a key rotational piece right away and possibly work his way to becoming a starter. This has already been mentioned, but Saunders was likely on that path until his injury in 2020.
In hindsight, if the Chiefs were looking to draft the best player available when they selected Saunders, there are a few players that suggest they made the wrong pick. Raiders defensive end Maxx Crosby, who was selected in the fourth round, is a good example of not only a better player, but a better D-lineman the Chiefs could have selected over Saunders. But if they were looking for exclusively a defensive tackle, there isn’t much of a case for anyone to be picked over Saunders.
Chiefs safety Armani Watts, who was ranked 10th on this list, took a big hit in his grade mainly because he wasn’t able to insert himself into the Chiefs defensive rotation. Saunders has been able to do that and has a chance to continue to do that if he is healthy this upcoming season, which is enough to rank him above Watts in my estimation.
Saunders’ injury is concerning though, and if he is unable to find his way back into the DT rotation, it will be nearly impossible for Saunders to pick up where he left off.
For all the reasons listed above, I’m grading the Khalen Saunders draft pick at a “C.”
How will this affect 2021?
Saunders can be a good rotational player for the Chiefs if he’s healthy, and his role as a run-stopping DT is valuable to a team that struggles against the run. I think the Chiefs may give Saunders a couple more chances to solidify his place on the roster, and I think it’s likely he find his way back into the rotation. With Saunders on the roster, I find it unlikely the Chiefs use their mid-to low round picks on a defensive tackle that would only add another body to a rotation that’s already deep.