What the Saints are getting in two-time Chiefs Super Bowl champ Khalen Saunders

Khalen Saunders was an exciting addition to the New Orleans Saints free agent class, having won a pair of Super Bowl rings with the Kansas City Chiefs and breaking out as a key piece to their defense in 2022. Now he’ll be spearheading the Saints interior line in 2023 and beyond.

But what does he bring to the table? We’ve already explored how Saunders and his fellow free agent pickup Nathan Shepherd compare to the players they’re replacing in New Orleans, but I spoke with Chiefs Wire managing editor Charles Goldman (follow him on Twitter here) to get some further insight and check on how Chiefs fans are handling this departure. Here’s what we learned:

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Saints Wire: Saunders’ teammates talk about him like he’s an ascending talent. What strides did he make in 2022 over his early career to get to that point?

Goldman: Yeah, I think the biggest thing for Saunders was just getting healthy enough to earn an opportunity. He came on strong toward the end of his rookie season, but then an elbow injury stifled his 2020. In 2021, he dealt with a knee injury that cost him a few weeks, but this past year, he was perfectly healthy. He’s always been a tremendous athlete, but it’s hard to get out there and show it when you’re not 100%.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Saints Wire: It looks like Saunders played his best football against the run, but he saw a ton of snaps on passing downs. Was that a coaching decision or does he have more potential as a pass rusher?

Goldman: As I mentioned, he’s a strong athlete. I think you want him on the field for outside-zone running plays where you can take advantage of that athleticism in pursuit angles. In terms of pass-rushing, that was really a new aspect of his game this past year. It, again, comes back to the athleticism and how well he can move for a big guy. If you want an example of that athleticism, go back to Week 17 of 2020 when the Chiefs played the Chargers. The team was resting their starters and playing backups and they ran out of healthy linebackers. Saunders was playing off-ball linebacker looking like Levon Kirkland out there.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Saints Wire: What kind of locker room presence does Saunders bring to the table? Did he have a leadership role in Kansas City?

Goldman: Well, firstly, he’s a fun guy. I mean, you can probably think back to the 2019 NFL draft. He was out there doing backflips at the Senior Bowl. In Kansas City, they’ve got a basketball hoop in the locker room and he was one of the guys who often challenged his teammates there.

As for his leadership abilities, Chiefs defensive line coach Joe Cullen has something that he calls, “The Wagon.” Basically, it’s awarded to the player that he feels can best motivate and challenge his teammates. Saunders had “The Wagon” quite a bit during the past year in Kansas City.

Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

Saints Wire: Lastly, how are Chiefs fans feeling about his departure? Was he a player they hoped to re-sign or are they happy to see him go?

Goldman: Chiefs fans were definitely hopeful that he would re-sign, but they’re happy to see him get the bag. He’s a St. Louis native and he’s always actively interacted with the fanbase on Twitter. A bit of a fan-favorite if you will.

Story originally appeared on Saints Wire