Saints defender dancing his way into comfort zone

Published 1:34 pm Thursday, August 10, 2023

By John DeShazier

New Orleans Saints

NEW ORLEANS — It was an odd thing for Khalen Saunders to say, considering no New Orleans Saints player is carrying around more weight that the listed 324 pounds of the defensive tackle, and the team on Wednesday again held a portion of practice outside, under heat advisory conditions that have wrapped their hands around the New Orleans metro area and squeezed – hard – for the last several weeks.

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“I won’t lie, I’ve been enjoying the heat,” said Saunders, who signed as an unrestricted free agent after spending his first four seasons with the Chiefs. “This is the best shape that I’ve ever been in in my life.

“For example, I ran after practice voluntarily today. Three years ago, Khalen Saunders would not have been doing that. That just goes to show that, this heat is really, I feel like a plus. It gets me in shape, it’s gotten me feeling good. I actually have asthma, and my asthma has been non-existent.”

What has appeared to be abundantly existent is that Saunders is ready, willing and able to provide a little bit more from his position than he was asked to provide with the Chiefs, for whom he totaled 4.5 sacks (3.5 last season), 81 tackles, 10 quarterback hits and three tackles for losses in 38 games, with five starts.

Saunders flashing through to the backfield on run and pass plays during training camp has been a routine occurrence. Coach Dennis Allen has said that New Orleans envisions a bit more pass rush from Saunders than the numbers have shown.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “Obviously, you want to be able to help the team in ways that they want you to. But when you know your abilities – I wouldn’t say ‘frustrating,’ because I’ve always been a team-first guy and I’m always going to do whatever the team needs me to do in order to win a game – but definitely having those abilities and being able to actually showcase and use them more here is beneficial for me.

“I’ve been having a lot of fun playing the game, just being able to use the athleticism that got me to this point, got me in the NFL in the first place. It’s a different role, definitely a different experience but I’m enjoying it.”

And Saunders said he’s not the only athlete at defensive tackle for the Saints.

“I’m the biggest guy on the defensive line, and I know I’m an athlete,” he said, smiling. “So, that just goes to show, all of our guys, we’ve got a bunch of dancing pandas in there. A lot of guys quick, nimble on their feet.

“(Rookie first-round pick Bryan) Bresee, I always call him a big kid. He’s just a big Gerber baby out there, a 6-5 Gerber baby. But he can move really well off that ball. He’s got a great get-off. It’s rare to have that type of get-off in that frame.

“Nate (Shepherd) is a goal guy. He’s going to get north and south, he’s going to throw his moves. I love playing with aggressive three-technique like that because it makes my job that much easier. (Malcolm) Roach is the ultimate swing guy. He can play 1 (technique), he can play 3 (technique), he can do them both effectively. He’s powerful but super quick, can get out of there.”

Allen said the entire defensive line has had a good training camp so far, and Saunders likes the direction the group is taking.

“I think the biggest thing that I like is that we’ve got a lot of unproven guys,” he said. “I mean, obviously, everybody knows (defensive end) Cam (Jordan) but behind that, you can’t name too many people who’s established in this league. So I think that hunger is what’s going to be our driving force.

“I love how this group is coming together, we have a bunch of hungry guys that have the talent to do it. There’s no reason that we can’t have four All-Pros, Pro Bowl guys out of that room. I’m excited for this year.”

ROSTER MOVES: The Saints signed tight end J.P. Holtz and waived/injured guard Koda Martin. Holtz was with the Saints last year, mainly on the practice squad.

PRACTICE WORK: A portion of practice was devoted to two-minute, down by two, end-of-game situations. Kicker Wil Lutz was perfect on three field goal attempts with the offense being led once each by quarterbacks Derek Carr, Jameis Winston and Jake Haener.