It was simply a case of bad luck for defensive tackle Khalen Saunders last season when the former third-round pick, who had just compiled a solid rookie campaign, dislocated his elbow in the Chiefs' opening contest against Houston.
The injury essentially ended his second professional season before it even had an opportunity to get started, but now healthy and a full year removed from that unfortunate night against the Texans, Saunders has quickly reminded everyone what he can do with a strong training camp.
"It has a lot to do with confidence," Saunders said on Monday. "I don't think the scheme is something I really struggle with - I've always been pretty good about learning and picking up a defense - it's just about being comfortable. I knew coming into this year that I kind of had to re-introduce myself, so that's been my focus this whole offseason and leading into this preseason."
That mentality is a product of a difficult season that included only three appearances for Saunders, whose elbow injury placed one of his greatest skillsets at a disadvantage.
"It was very frustrating for me because upper body strength and the ability to move guys around is my biggest attribute," Saunders explained. "It was hard because I'm already an undersized defensive tackle, and using my hands is a big part of my game. That's how I keep those longer guys off me. [I wasn't comfortable] striking people with my left elbow, so it was a setback."
Fortunately, Saunders' injury didn't need surgery. It was just about taking the time to heal while staying mentally focused on the bigger picture at hand. That required patience, but he eventually had a chance to play significant snaps in Kansas City's regular-season finale against Los Angeles, providing the kindling for a strong offseason program and training camp in the months that followed.
"It's been great to see. I'd say he's had the best training camp he's had since he's been with us," said Run Game Coordinator / Defensive Line Coach Brendan Daly. "I'm pleased with the way he's working - he's expanded his role. One of the things that jumps out to me about Khalen is that he's one of the smartest guys in the room. He understands adjustments, the calls, and the schemes. [He has] a very, very high football IQ, which is impressive to me."
And if you ask Saunders, this is just a continuation of what he started as a rookie in 2019 when the six-foot-tall, 324-pound defensive tackle appeared in 12 games and recorded more than 300 snaps. He views this season as a metaphorical junior year in the professional ranks, and just because his sophomore campaign was lost due to injury, that didn't stop his growth as a player.
"I've always been this [kind of player]. I don't think there was any on/off switch. I just think that I got hurt in the first game of the season and I didn't have a chance to show growth from my rookie year to my second season," Saunders said. "Now, you're getting a super load of last year and this year's improvement."
That was apparent throughout training camp, ultimately earning Saunders an opportunity to start last weekend's preseason tilt against the Arizona Cardinals. Of course, this was just an exhibition game and the results don't count in the standings, but the decision was an affirmation that the third-year defensive tackle was making an impression.
"The workload is never too much for me, regardless of what it is. Just being able to start and get a reward out of the work I've put in, it's a great feeling," Saunders said. "One thing I will say though, and my teammates and coaches know this, is that I know I'm a rotational guy in this defense, but I'm always going to play my part to the best of my ability…Starting is a blessing, but I'm always a team-first guy and I've always been that way. I think that helps with the cohesion of the defensive line and it helps us trust one another."
It's an admirable mindset and one that also has its roots in the Chiefs' culture as a whole. In fact, Saunders recalled his experience as a rookie and how he was treated – specifically by fellow defensive linemen Chris Jones and Frank Clark – while illustrating what makes this locker room so unique.
"I have a lot of friends in the league, and they talk about how rookies get treated [elsewhere]," Saunders said. "Ever since I came here, they never treated me like a rookie. They treated me like a guy they'd need later in the season to win a championship. That's what I felt."
The former Western Illinois standout helped the Chiefs accomplish that exact goal during his rookie year, and while his second season didn't go the way he would have hoped, Saunders isn't deterred by what amounted to a temporary setback.
In fact, he embraces it.
"That's been a part of my story this whole time. Before the injury and after the injury, I've always been an underrated player," Saunders said. "I've always had to go above and beyond as opposed to the guys coming from the FBS schools, so it's nothing new to me. It's familiar territory for me to be underrated and to just go out and prove what I already know myself to be."