KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Chiefs have tried to find a solution to a leaky run defense in recent seasons, and they a plug in the gap with athletic, mountainous defensive tackle Khalen Saunders from Western Illinois.
Saunders was holding his newborn daughter, Kambridge, when he learned of his selection, so he didn't do his patented backflip, but rest assured that trick is in his bag.
The 6-0, 324-pound Saunders earned first team FCS All-American honors as a senior for the Leathernecks, and was first-team All-Missouri Valley Conference the past two seasons. He picked up 72 tackles, including 13 for a loss last season with six and a half sacks.
Saunders said he's not concerned about making the leap from the FCS level to the NFL. His sees the biggest challenge adjusting to the speed and improving his technique.
"I honestly feel I played really good competition," Saunders said. "But I think in general any college player adjusting to the NFL, no matter if you come from the best school in the country or FCS level, you've never played NFL football. I think all of us have something to adjust."
Saunders earned plenty of notice during the draft process. He was a highlight darling for his signature backflip celebration, which he performed at the Senior Bowl in January.
He also find himself in the spotlight at the Senior Bowl with the birth of his daughter, Kambridge, during the week of practice leading up to the game. Saunders considered returning home to Chicago for the birth, but he and his fiancee Ayanna agreed it was best for him to stay and make his case to NFL scouts.
The St. Louis, Mo., native also earned a spot on Terez Paylor's All-Juice team from Yahoo Sports.
Saunders' highlight reel includes many line-bursting moves due to his quick hands and powerful drive.The Athletic's draft analyst Dane Brugler says he needs to improve his rush technique, “but the athletic skill, raw strength and character are NFL quality, projecting best in a 4-3 scheme as a one-gapping nose with three-down potential.”
Saunders was a running back in high school – at fear-instilling 285 pounds – and as a result he gravitated to Marshawn Lynch and became a Seattle Seahawks fan. That made him a Frank Clark fan, too, who he now will play next to on the line.
"He's special, he's a force coming off the edge."
He come across as a kind-hearted gentle giant off the field, and he agrees with that assessment. On the field, however, he says he flips a switch.
"I look at it as whoever's in front of me is trying to take clothes off my daughter's back and food out out of my daughter's mouth, and I can't have that,” Saunders said.