Prospect Profile: Athletic DT Khalen Saunders Plugs Crucial Hole for Seahawks

Oozing with potential, Saunders starred at the Senior Bowl and made a name for himself in a deep draft class.

Though breakout star Jarran Reed and undrafted sensation Poona Ford will be back to form a formidable starting tandem along the interior defensive line, the Seattle Seahawks enter the offseason with plenty of depth concerns in the trenches.

Aside from Reed and Ford, Nazair Jones and recently-signed veteran Jamie Meder are the only other two defensive tackles currently under contract for Seattle. With Stephen set to hit free agency and Jones expected to transition to five-technique defensive end following a rough sophomore season, the Seahawks will need to be aggressive pursuing reinforcements at the position through free agency and/or the draft.

After struggling to consistently stop the run and finishing in the middle of the pack rushing opposing passers, could the Seahawks stick with status quo craving athleticism in the draft and select Western Illinois standout Khalen Saunders to fill the significant roster need?

Strengths

Potential can be a dangerous word, and as typically seen with FCS-level prospects trying to jump to the NFL, Saunders will be heavily scrutinized by teams for playing against inferior competition. But the 320-pound defender dominated his opponents in every sense of the word, recording 172 tackles and 16.0 sacks in four seasons at Western Illinois.

Showing off freakish athletic traits rarely seen for players of his size, Saunders can stick the landing on a full backflip, illustrating his unique explosiveness for an interior defensive lineman. On the football field, he’s a nightmare to block due to his elite quickness and ability to transition speed into power as a rusher. When he gets a beat on the football, he possesses closing speed to track down ball carriers rarely seen from his position and gives maximum effort each play in pursuit.

Though he’s far from a polished pass rusher and will need work to develop other counters at the next level, he deploys a few refined moves that would rank among the most effective in this deep draft class. Most notably, he showed a knack for embarrassing blockers by exploding past them with a filthy, efficient swim move to slip into the backfield for sacks and tackles for loss.

Capitalizing on his athleticism, Saunders lined up all over the defensive line for the Leathernecks and even caught a touchdown near the goal line on offense. While most of his snaps came as a nose tackle in a 3-4 front, he also played some three-technique defensive tackle and even found some success rushing the quarterback as a standup defensive end off the edge.

Weaknesses

In terms of raw talent and athleticism, Saunders has plenty of first-round attributes, but he demonstrates enough technical flaws in his game to suggest that he’ll be a project for whoever chooses to draft him and might not be ready for extended snaps right away.

Playing against unexceptional FCS foes, Saunders dominated much of the time on physical ability alone, using his quick first few steps to blow by blockers and manhandling weaker opponents at the point of attack. With such a talent discrepancy, he didn’t develop the fundamentals necessary to consistently win in the trenches in the NFL, specifically when it comes to hand technique and creating leverage against blockers.

There may not be a more athletic interior defender in this loaded draft class, but Saunders has struggled with anticipating snap counts and bursting late out of his stance. Whichever team opts to draft him will need to address this issue quickly, as he could remain a monster to try to block if he learns to shoot out of his stance with more burst and better timing.

Ultimately, Saunders didn’t develop enough of the “necessities“ in college, often failing to maintain active hands as he tracked the football while working against blocks because he could get away with it. The overall lack of refinement technique-wise in his game could limit his effectiveness during the early stages of his career and he seems best-suited to play in a 4-3 scheme where he can be a one-gap defender.

Where He’d Fit in Seattle

Saunders proved he could hang with the nation’s best in Mobile at the Senior Bowl, recording a sack in the game and excelling throughout the practice week. Still, some teams will be hesitant to pick him in the first three rounds because he’s an FCS prospect with plenty of “boom or bust” potential.

But the Seahawks have rarely met an athletic phenom they didn’t love and despite his current technical limitations, Saunders’ ability to be disruptive as a penetrating one-gap defensive tackle would be an asset in their scheme. With Reed and Ford already in place as starters and Seattle likely to pursue at least one veteran free agent, the team could slowly integrate him into their rotation as he develops under the tutelage of defensive line coach Clint Hurtt.

Depending on his performance at the scouting combine, Saunders could hear his name called in Nashville as early as the mid-second round. If he’s still on the board in the third round, there’s no question he’ll be an enticing option for the Seahawks as they replenish depth up front.

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