ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — Chiefs defensive tackle Khalen Saunders arrived for his first NFL training camp with a clear lesson learned from his three months in the NFL.
“There's a professional way to do everything, that's what I've learned since I've been here,” Saunders said after his second training camp practice on Thursday. “There's a right way, there's your way and then there's the professional way.”
Learning the professional way to do things at the NFL level poses a different challenge for Saunders compared to some of his rookie teammates. Overlooked coming out of Parkway Central High School in Chesterfield, Mo., Saunders built himself into a star at FBS level Western Illinois. His frenetic and emotional playing style, however, draws its fuel from that wayward trip to becoming a pro.
“I think I play with that type of energy and that type of chip on my shoulder because a lot of people from my position aren't lucky enough to be here, and I'll never take that for granted in my life,” Saunders said.
Upon his arrival with the Chiefs, Saunders immediately found teammates and coaches ready to guide him through the jump to the NFL. As part of his mission toward becoming a true professional, Saunders first turned his focus toward finding a weight at which he felt comfortable playing. He checked in at 324 pounds at the NFL Combine in March, a generous amount above the 310 pounds he was listed at Western Illinois.
That's where defensive line mate Chris Jones entered the picture.
“That was one of the first people I reached out to and he just taught me how to eat, how to sleep, when to stop eating at night, stuff like that,” said Saunders, who said he texts with Jones regularly despite the veteran's absence from team during offseason workouts.
Jones went through similar challenges now facing Saunders with finding the right weight and body type to become successful as a pro. Jones once saw himself chided for carrying too much “baby fat,” but his continued focus on sculpting his body translated into a 15 1/2-sack season in 2018.
Saunders hopes the advice can payoff for him as well. He said he reported within the target weight the club set for him for training camp, and he's happy with the progress.
“He's helped me with my nutrition and diet because he himself was losing a little bit of weight as well,” Saunders said. “He told me how to do that and how to be a professional about it. He's a help even though he's not here right now.”
He said he's dropped 10 to 15 pounds since joining the club, and that's where he would like to say.
“I want to stay within that range just because that's where I feel light enough to move well but then also heavy enough to fight 600 pounds every play,” Saunders explained.
Another key piece towards Saunders' development as a pro comes from the club's new defensive coaching staff, especially defensive line coach Brendan Daly. He describes the former Patriots assistant as an interactive coach who dedicates time to teaching the skills and techniques essential in the trenches.
“He details everything for you, regardless of who is it up,” Saunders said. “He wants you to do it right and at the end of the day, that's the sign of a coach that cares. He wants everybody to do it right, not just the guys that he potentially will keep. He coaches everybody the same, and I love it.”
At rookie minicamp, Saunders and his defensive teammates find themselves essentially drinking from the firehouse. They're facing the reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes, and with only 12 healthy defensive players on hand, the reps come fast and furious.
“When you go against Pat, it's a little different,” he said. “He can do almost anything that quarterback position is allowed to do. When you see that everyday it kind of prepares you for almost anything you can see.”
The short bench also means plenty of learning opportunities going up against head coach Andy Reid's offense.
“I feel like going against coach Reid's offense everyday, especially like you said not having that many subs, I get to see a lot of different looks,” Saunders said. “It goes back to like playing against Pat everybody. One of the best coaches, one of the best quarterbacks. When you play against those, that duo, everyday for a lot of snaps, you get to learn a lot, so I've been fortunate for that.”
It's pretty heady stuff for a young player such as Saunders, a 22-year-old looking to make the leap from a lower level of college football to a team that was one play away from a Super Bowl appearance last year across the state from his hometown of St. Louis.
“I love red,” Saunders said. “I played at Parkway Central, we were red, it's fun getting back to wearing red. The Chiefs, they're a tremendous team on top of that. It's even better when you come into a team that was a step away from the Super Bowl.
“Hopefully, we can get back to that position and go forward from there.”