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2019 Sleeper NFL Draft Prospect Khalen Saunders DT Western Illinois

A nice fit for our shaded 1 tech in Greg Williams defense

NCAA Football: Senior Bowl Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Khalen Saunders 6’ 0” 320 lbs Defensive Tackle Western Illinois

I think I waited too long to bring you my sleeper selection in Khalen Saunders. He was in the first part of my super sleeper series but drew too much attention to himself by his athleticism, his story and a famous back flip that hit YouTube. Now his play at the Senior Bowl has highlighted his talents so much that I knew I had to write his story before he tears up the Combine and pushes his stock into the first round. (Just kidding.)

The first thing you notice about Khalen is he is a big kid but has very little excess weight.

His shoulders are wider than his waist. He is not chiseled like a Myles Garrett, but he still could add more muscle to his frame if needed. You will see he has power but also great quickness with a speed element added. He played in the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) in the Missouri Valley Conference with schools like North Dakota State (Carson Wentz), Northern Iowa (Kurt Warner), Southern Illinois (Bart Scott).

Khalen has the traits that could be special to the Jets as their shaded one tech that Greg Williams likes to play in a 4-3 alignment. Here he is playing the zero technique which is right over the nose of the center.

This is a super powerful man who goes around the center almost without being touched. He feigns a couple steps to the right to make the center lean that way. The center has to get his weight in front of Saunders, or he will plow him over like a tackling dummy. Once Saunders has the center leaning to his left, he quickly shifts back to the right and uses his hands to swim by and into the backfield. Saunders comes with so much speed his momentum almost takes him by the QB. This 320 lb powerful man made this sack using only his hands and feet, a pretty nice move.

Here Saunders is showing some versatility as he slides over to play a 3 tech, but he is two gaping on the play so he is over the nose of the guard which is technically the “4” position. He comes off the snap with a wide base and gets his hands inside the guard’s hands. (You can see the guard’s hands on the outside.)

The guard is trying to move Saunders but they are merely sliding towards the play which being run to Saunders left. Saunders now has the guard stacked, and he is reading the play to see which way the RB goes. Once he sees the RB cut back to his right he disposes of the guard (sheds) and makes the tackle at or about the LOS. This is a textbook example of the stack and shed technique and done very nicely.

I mentioned Saunders has an element of speed in his game which is a luxury for a interior defensive lineman to have. This play is a screen pass run by North Dakota State (the FCS champions this year) and Saunders again is playing over the nose (the “0” tech).

I don’t know what the center was thinking as he barely gets a hand on Saunders after he snaps the ball and runs downfield. First, there is no deception on the play as the DB’s and LB’s can see this is a screen all the way when the offensive linemen just race to the left and downfield at the snap. Second, this will be an illegal man downfield penalty since the center will be about 20 yards downfield before the ball would be caught. I really think that the center is scared to death of Saunders and I will show you why a little later. Anyway this is a shotgun snap. and you can see the QB barely has the ball before Saunders is on top of him. The thing to notice is the impressive speed Saunders has from a dead stop. The QB had no chance on the play.

This is another play from the same game and again Saunders shows you impressive speed, quickness and versatility. Saunders is playing as a “7” tech on the outside shoulder of the left tackle and again is able to sack the QB with just his hands and feet.

Watch as Saunders feigns again to the right. As soon as the left tackle leans that way to cut off the edge Saunders doubles back quickly into the vacant hole between the tackle and guard. The tackle is now way off balance as he tries to get back to cover the inside track but is only able to get an arm out that Saunders easily swats away. He then blows by the guard before he can react, and the rest is a blur until the QB is flung to the ground.

Here is the same type of move this time as a “0” tech right over the center. I believe the interior defensive linemen are two gaping on the play, but when the RB immediately flares to the left and the QB drops straight back they read pass all the way.

The arm over move that Saunders puts on the center is lethal. The center is so off balance he clumsily falls back into his own right guard. The quickness and skill that Saunders uses on these plays are so remarkable for a player who has probably not received top quality coaching in his entire life. At times he looks like a professional playing against high school kids. he precision in the hand usage is also top notch.

As of now I have said that Saunders also has tremendous strength and power but have not shown it. also said that I would show you why I thought the center was scared to death of Saunders. This play is (of course) in the same game as before with Saunders playing over the centers nose as a “0” tech.

It’s almost like the center got him angry somehow as he throws the center about five yards. Even the double team by the left guard is of no help. Saunders grabs the RB and muscles him backward. It is all so quick. Throw the center, brush off the guard, and manhandle the RB. I have watched at least a few hundred plays by Saunders, and this is only time he seemed pissed off. HE should get like that more often.

Here are a couple of plays that show the Saunders well rounded skill set. The first play Saunders is playing the shaded 1 tech and has to read the play when the QB fakes the run. Once the RB is out of the picture Saunders is able to quickly swim the guard quickly bring pressure and make the QB hurry his throw which becomes incomplete.

The second play Saunders is playing over the nose and is being double teamed at the snap. Saunders gets doubled a lot but still makes plays. Here he sees the read option is headed outside and gets on his horse. He was double teamed at the snap but is able to fight through traffic and make the tackle outside the numbers (from the 0 position) for a minimal gain.

Here are two zone running plays one going right and the other going left. For a big man Saunders has a low center of gravity which makes him harder to knock off his feet.

These are plays you would expect to a dominant defensive tackle to make, and he does so. It is nice to see the movement skills and how cleanly he makes it through traffic. Saunders is also has very good hands to get around blockers, control opponents and make sure tackles.

I mentioned earlier that Saunders was getting a lot of buzz from the Draft community. It first started with a YouTube video of Saunders doing a standing back flip. Well at the Senior Bowl he was getting asked about it, and his fellow players wanted to see him do it again.

So here he is with both teams watching after practice, and instead of doing a standing back flip he gave them the running one instead. If I could even do this (which I can’t) I would probably dislocate my elbows. He got a 9.5 on the back flip but only because the Russian judge gave him only an 8.0. What do you expect?

More interest came about Saunders when the media found out his girlfriend was going into labor while he was in Mobile. Saunders’ mom was with his girlfriend and asked him to stay in Alabama to help his career. Being from a small school Saunders knew he had just a few opportunities to impress the NFL community, and his loved ones didn’t want him to miss his moment to shine. Saunders was one of my standout performers during the Senior Bowl practices showing good power and especially those good hands.

He stayed the week and then flew back home Friday morning to see his new baby girl. He was ecstatic to be a father and didn’t disappoint when he flew back for the game on Saturday.

Here he is against some of the best senior players in the country. You have seen this move before, the feign right then double back left, the guard pretty much trips over himself. Will Grier turns his head to make a ball fake and turns around to see a big man in his face.

From a different angle you can see by just how much Saunders beats his man; the guard even vainly tries to trip him but to no avail. The sack was nice. The sweet forceful tackle was nice, but to give you new baby daughter the “rock a bye baby” on national TV in her honor was just sweet.

That is a clip that will be in that family’s lives forever. He continued to put pressure on all day, but that was enough to make you do a back flip. Okay.

...and there she is, good job Khalen!!

Saunders is a nice prospect who could play that shaded “1” tech and bring some speed to the interior line as well. Depending who we get to play the “3” tech (Grady Jarrett please) we could have a nice rotation inside. The Jets will have to remake a good portion of our defense with the new system. Depending on your personnel each can be effective but if everything is equal I like the 4-3 base myself.

The Combine is just ahead, and some player is going to be a darling. I’m afraid it could be Saunders with his skills, his story and everyone likes to route for the underdog. Coming from a small school if he equates himself well he will jump up on draft boards.

I have seen many interviews with Saunders, and he comes off as a well spoken, smart kid who is humble and loves the game of football. It is hard not to like a kid like that. Heck, he sold me. I will wait until after the Combine to give my draft grade on Saunders but he has a great skill set and I think mid 3rd round may be possible.

What do you think?