There has been a clear through-line across the New Orleans Saints newest free agent signees. Culture. Well, okay two through-lines: culture and leadership. New defensive tackle Khalen Saunders was the epitome of both qualities when introduced on Friday.
The four-year interior defender entered the NFL from a small school and was immediately a part of two Super Bowl-winning rosters with the Kansas City Chiefs. So, not only did the Saints find a leader in Saunders, they found themselves a winner as well.
Saunders impressed in his introductory press conference at the end of last week. Both in his understanding of himself and the opportunity ahead of him. Here are some of the biggest takeaways from his time visiting with New Orleans media.
He wants to prove he’s more than just a big man in the middle
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“On the field obviously you can tell by my body, I’m more of a running player,” Saunders said when asked about his on-field contributions to his new team. “Big body. You know, I definitely use violence in my hands and stuff like that. And also, just athleticism. Just raw athleticism. I take pride in being an athlete.”
Much like the team’s new running back Jamaal Williams, Saunders is interested in proving that he’s more than just a big guy who can muck up the middle of the defensive line. The 324-pound lineman doesn’t mind the perception of being seen as a “mauler” by others. Because he has a lot of confidence in his athleticism, violent hands and “good feet,” as he called them.
Saunders considers himself a unifier off the field
The emphasis on culture was the hardest to ignore while Saunders began to discuss the way he builds relationships with players in his locker rooms. The former Chiefs defender exclaimed on social media how rough free agency was turning out for him. When asked on Friday about the anxiety he expressed, he went on to discuss that it’s a mix of emotions that all come from how deeply entrenched the relationships he forges are.
“I’ve got a lot of brothers in my actual family and as soon as I join a team I look at it like I’m adding… What a 90-man roster? I’m adding 90 new brothers. I’m going to treat them as such regardless of who stays or who doesn’t. You can ask anybody that I’ve ever been a teammate with, we’re still in contact. I don’t care if you were there for two days on the practice squad. I don’t care if we played together for four years. I’m going to treat you the same way.”
Saunders already has a few friends in the Saints locker room
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The new Saints defender may be in a new city, but he’s got a lot of familiar faces in the locker room. Upon agreeing to terms on his 3-year, $14.5 million deal with New Orleans, he reached out to Saints defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon. The two overlapped in Kansas City during the 2019 and 2020 seasons. He and Kpassagnon spoke via phone.
On the other hand another now-again teammate, safety Tyrann Mathieu, and he met for dinner upon his arrival in the Big Easy. While their choice of cuisine wasn’t New Orleans-inspired (Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse), at least it wasn’t Chipotle. The two met over dinner to talk about the transition to New Orleans and of course to catch up. The two spent time together with the Chiefs from 2019 through 2021 until Mathieu signed with the Saints last year.
And it doesn’t stop there. While he is not currently on the roster as an unrestricted free agent, safety Daniel Sorensen was also in Kansas City from 2019 through the 2021 season. Now all four could be reunited here in New Orleans, unless Sorensen gets a deal elsewhere or doesn’t return to the Saints roster. But either way, Saunders will have chemistry with a few of the defenders around him.
He may be a recruiting prodigy
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Saunders said that he was often assigned recruits to hosts while he was at Western Illinois. During his years there he estimated that he’d hosted around 20 recruits. Turns out, he was pretty good at all. Saunders is fairly certain that only two of his potential new teammates ended up committing elsewhere. He’s also pretty sure those weren’t his fault.
“And the only reason I lost two of them” Saunders said. “Was probably because in FCS you can do partial scholarship. In FBS it’s either full or nothing. FCS you can go 75% blah, blah, blah. I think that’s the only reason I lost two of them because they got full from somewhere. But other than that, I’m almost undefeated.”
Almost undefeated indeed. Perhaps after his NFL career, a future on the recruiting trail for a university’s athletic program could be in the cards. Or, perhaps, the Saints could look to take advantage of his salesmanship while here in New Orleans for a couple of off-seasons.
Coming from an offensive team, he’s excited to be with a defensive system
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Saunders says that he spoke with Mathieu over dinner about the type of defense the Saints run and where he’ll be able to fit. He highlighted that he is particularly excited about the “attacking nature” of the system and how it will allow him and others to pin their ears back and play with effort and aggression. But he went on to express just how much he’s excited about the change in emphasis from Kansas City to New Orleans relative to which side of the ball gets the glory.
“And then also just it being such a historic defensive team,” he said. “A historic defensive city. It’s beautiful, man. I had the luxury of playing with an offensive team and it’s beautiful, it’s fun. But I’m excited to get to some traditional defense for sure.” They sure have come a long way since the 2014 through 2016 seasons, haven’t they?
Story originally appeared on Saints Wire