Western Illinois defensive tackle Khalen Saunders will likely be the state's lone FCS representative in this week's NFL Draft.
Moreover, while several media outlets and scouting services have tabbed the 6-foot, 324-pounder as a likely mid-round pick, Saunders' impressive Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine performances have moved him much higher on the boards. Last week, in fact, longtime draft guru Mel Kiper, Jr. projected Saunders as a second-round pick going to the Dallas Cowboys at No. 58 overall.
"It was safety or defensive tackle for the Cowboys here. The super-athletic Saunders fills a need and has some upside," Kiper wrote recently.
NFL.com grades Saunders as a "chance to become NFL starter" in his profile. Moreover, the website proclaims the St. Louis native "showed FBS-level talent as soon as he hit the field as a redshirt freshman."
Damond Talbot of nfldraftdiamonds.com projects Saunders as a third-round selection. Talbot has Saunders going No. 83 overall to the Tennessee Titans.
NFL analyst Lance Zierlein projects Saunders as a fourth- or fifth-round pick. Zierlein calls Saunders an "active defensive lineman with an impressive combination of agility and athletic ability." The analyst added, "If he can improve his conditioning to become more disruptive for longer stretches, he'll have a chance to become a solid rotational defender and eventual starter."
Like Zierlein, FCS/D2 football analyst Christian Shanafelt of NFL Draft Bible views Saunders as a mid-round pick.
"I'm not sure there is anybody that has improved their draft stock this offseason more than WIU's Khalen Saunders," Shanafelt told Prairie State Pigskin. "Despite the 'small school label' being looked at as a negative, Saunders absolutely dominated some of college football's best down in Mobile at the Reese's Senior Bowl and even showed off his elite athleticism at the NFL Scouting Combine.
"Having been able to chat with Saunders a few different times over the past couple of years, he's still the same humble, driven human being he was even before the mainstream media picked up on how disruptive a player he is on the defensive line. There's no doubt in my mind in meetings and conversations with NFL teams that Saunders knocked it out of the park. I think there's a chance that Saunders can go as early as the third round, but I expect him to go somewhere between rounds 4-5. I'm sure there a plenty of teams that have fallen in love with not only the player Khalen is but the person he is outside of the game as well."
Chris Trapasso of CBSSports.com wrote that Saunders was "arguably the most dominant defensive lineman" at the Senior Bowl. Trapasso added that the former Leatherneck is "obviously blessed with a low center of gravity that leads to serious power, Saunders also routinely wins with his first step and sustained speed through the line of scrimmage."
Trapasso further said that Saunders can be one of the best value defensive picks in the draft.
Saunders was named Associated Press second-team All-American this past season. He was a first-team Missouri Valley Football Conference selection as a junior and senior. Over the past two seasons, he recorded 25 tackles-for-loss and 14 sacks.
Draft Wire's Gavino Borquez noted that Saunders best projects as a one-gapping nose tackle in a 4-3 scheme with three-down potential. Borquez lauded Saunders' flexibility, speed and power at the point of attack as a rusher. The analyst listed "play recognition, hand usage to disengage from blockers and ability of anchor" are areas that Saunders will need to address in the pros.
Other Illinois FCS players
"I'm not sure about any other Illinois FCS guys getting drafted," said Shanafelt, a Chicago-based analyst, "but I really like these guys chances as making it as undrafted free agents: WIU defensive end Pete Swenson, SIU wide receiver Ralph Leonard, EIU wide receiver Alexander Hollins and Illinois State wide receiver Spencer Schnell."