Round 3: Western Illinois DT Khalen Saunders
6-0, 320 – Junior
Previous Pick: Memphis RB Darrell Henderson
Tampa Bay may be moving on from six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy this offseason and could use another versatile big man inside. McCoy turns 31 in February and is scheduled to make $13 million in base salary, which may be too much for the salary cap-strapped Bucs to absorb in 2019. Vita Vea, last year’s first-round draft pick, can play either nose tackle or the three-technique defensive tackle spot in new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ 3-4 Under defensive scheme.
Drafting another athletic big man like Saunders only gives Bowles more chess pieces to play with on the Bucs defense. Scouts at the Senior Bowl told PewterReport.com that Saunders has the size and strength to hold up at the point of attack against double teams at 320 pounds, but also has the agility and quickness to penetrate and play the three technique.
Saunders has a physical presence and plays with a mean streak. Pass rushing interior defensive linemen are in demand, and Saunders posted a combined 14 sacks and 25 tackles for loss over the past two years. The Western Illinois coaching staff also used his athleticism near the goal line where Saunders rushed for a touchdown on a dive in 2017 and caught a touchdown pass in 2018.
“He’s one of the most respected young men to ever walk through our program,” Western Illinois head coach Jared Elliott told Yahoo Sports. “That’s not because he’s a great player. He’s a tremendous teammate and extremely selfless. He’s not a flashy kid; he’s had to work and earn everything he’s gotten.”
Saunders’ Western Illinois Career Defensive Stats
2015: 27 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 1 FR
2016: 48 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 2 PBUs, 1 block
2017: 57 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, 3 PBUs, 3 FF, 1 FR
2018: 72 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 FF, 1 FR
One of the more athletic interior linemen in this year’s draft, Saunders became an Internet sensation this fall when his agent posted a video of him doing a backflip at 320 pounds. Saunders replicated the backflip at the end of Tuesday’s practice at the Senior Bowl, wowing his teammates and the Oakland Raiders coaching staff.
Saunders had a dominant week of practice at the Senior Bowl where he consistently won 1-on-1s in pass rush/pass protection drills, and showed the ability to disrupt the line of scrimmage in team drills during practice and the game where he had the game’s first sack, in addition to three tackles. But Saunders also showed off his infectious personality in media interviews where he revealed that his fiancée was about to give birth during Senior Bowl. Saunders became a father after Tuesday’s practice, watching the birth of his daughter on FaceTime from Mobile, Ala.
Saunders’ commitment to his football future was demonstrated by the fact that he stayed at the Senior Bowl to take part in the practices rather than leave early, and only took a 24-hour reprieve to visit his daughter in Chicago on Friday before flying back to Mobile for the game Saturday morning.
The Bucs want players who love football, and it’s clear from his collegiate production and his decision to stay in Mobile for the Senior Bowl to impress NFL scouts instead of flying home to witness the birth of his daughter that Saunders truly loves the game. Pair Saunders and Vea up and the Bucs could have a dominant interior for years to come.