In recent years, the Oklahoma Sooners have found a lot of offensive success by recruiting wide receivers that are terrific athletes in space. They tend to be slightly undersized but they are extremely effective in the spread out Big XII Conference where defenses are spread thin and have to try to stop all of these athletes in the open field. One of these receivers is Jalen Saunders, who is extremely athletic but is tiny by NFL standards. Saunders has been typically employed as a slot receiver and maneuvered to be an extra backfield receiver in the Sooner offense. In nine games as a junior, Saunders caught 62 passes for 829 yards and 3 touchdowns as a receiver while also returning 5 punts for 88 yards and another touchdown.
Saunders is a nightmare in space and shows to be a reliable receiver who can create separation but the question facing him is one he has likely heard his entire life, which is about his size. For all the different ways he can contribute, there are teams that will not consider him because of his size and a fit in their offense but between special teams and his ability as a receiver, he will fit nicely in a few systems and looks like someone who warrants a third day pick at the moment. If Saunders can put on some more weight and work to convince NFL evaluators of his toughness, he might be able to squeeze into the second day but more than likely tops out around the fourth round.
Vitals & Build
Saunders is listed at 5’9” 160lbs with impressive agility, body control, and good long speed. He also displays good vision on the field but his strength may be great relative to his size but it makes little or no different on the field. He has a frame that looks like it can support more weight which will be a key for Saunders but as he enters his senior year, his body may simply not take the weight like teams would hope. If he can get up close to 170lbs as a senior and 175lbs by the time of the draft and maintain his athleticism, it will help some teams breathe a sigh of relief. If he can add that weight, that is where his potential lies but for the most part, what teams see is what they are going to get from Saunders.
Route Running & Technique
Saunders’ stance is a little too spread out and he needs to move his back foot further under him. He is so spread out that he has to reset his feet, which has a big bounce to it, to then get off of the line of scrimmage, which slows him down significantly.
As a route runner, the Air Raid of the Sooners does not ask him to be a terribly disciplined route runner and their receivers attack areas of the field. Saunders does do a good job of planting his foot and working laterally on in and out routes and he can create separation well in those situations. There are other routes that are rounded off too much like when he settles in the middle of the field on under throws and some of his deeper routes are rather ordinary. Saunders is able to create separation because he is fast and quick, but more discipline with his footwork and overall as a route runner would make his life even easier. The crispness of his in and out type routes suggests this is something he can learn if he is asked to work on it.
Saunders shows natural hands and seems to catch anything in the neighborhood. Despite his size, he shows a pretty good catch radius and can make plays on passes high, low, behind him, etc., which was something he had to get accustomed to dealing with at Oklahoma. He has a good sense of how to catch the ball while protecting himself and avoid getting killed. Saunders is not someone who is equipped to box out opponents and he will have to figure out how to avoid getting overpowered by defensive backs going to the next level.
Run After Catch
This is where Saunders shows why he has intriguing value in the NFL. He catches the ball cleanly and efficiently and has shown the ability to set up what comes next. Saunders not only has great quickness, body control, and speed as a ball carrier, but he demonstrates vision and instincts as well. He knows himself and how to avoid getting killed for the most part. As long as a quarterback does not lead him into a huge hit, Saunders is slippery and has moves that allow him to make guys miss like jump cuts and spin moves but also has a sense of when to get down while still gaining yardage to avoid the big hit. Saunders is always a threat to make a bigger play and if he has an open lane, he can take it all the way.
Saunders’ lack of size makes blocking a real challenge, but he does not use it as an excuse. He gives full effort and will do everything in his power to get in the way and try to make a difference both for running backs and fellow wide receivers to maximize plays. Even if he is just operating as a speed bump, he is at least forcing the defender to do extra work to try to make a play. All the technique and grit will only take him so far, but the fact that he does give effort and try his best is something coaches always like and appreciate in their players.
Saunders has experience as a punt returner and his athleticism and quickness in space is extremely well suited for the job. Not only does he have the quick twitch movements that allow him to succeed but has shown pretty good vision in the role as well.
Saunders is a slot receiver but he is best suited to play in a more wide open scheme than one that wants to shrink the field. For example, he would probably not be terribly well suited to play in San Francisco or Cleveland, but might flourish in St. Louis or New Orleans. Both of those teams are looking to spread teams out and allow athletes to get open and make plays in the open field much like Oklahoma does. For all of the concerns about his size, legitimate as they are, Saunders knows how to get open and catch the ball, so he might make a roster spot purely on the ability to move the chains on third down. In addition to what he can do as a receiver, his contributions on special teams as a punt returner in particular could really help him secure a roster spot and be a contributor in the NFL.
|Sat, Aug. 31||vs. LA-Monroe|
|Sat, Sept. 7||vs. West Virginia|
|Sat, Sept. 14||vs. Tulsa|
|Sat, Sept. 28||at Notre Dame|
|Sat, Oct. 5||vs. TCU|
|Sat, Oct. 12||vs. Texas|
|Sat, Oct. 19||at Kansas|
|Sat, Oct. 26||vs. Texas Tech|
|Thu, Nov. 7||at Baylor|
|Sat, Nov. 16||vs. Iowa State|
|Sat, Nov. 23||at Kansas State|
|Sat, Dec. 7||at Oklahoma State|
The best three tests for Saunders are three of the most important games on the Oklahoma schedule and they are right in a row. Starting with a road game in South Bend against the Fighting Irish, Oklahoma remembers the thumping they took last year and will be looking to make a statement this year. Notre Dame plays a strong, physical brand of defense and Saunders will have an open field speed advantage but will be a good test to prove his toughness against players like Bennett Jackson. In spite of the loss, Saunders had 15 catches for 181 yards against Notre Dame last year. The following week, the Sooners host TCU. Gary Patterson’s team is always tough defensively and with players like Jason Verrett in their secondary, Saunders will need to work to have an impact on the game. Last year, Saunders played well with 7 catches for 108 yards and a touchdown. They finish this tough three game stretch at home in the Red River Rivalry against Texas. Oklahoma put a beating on Texas last year but Saunders was not a big factor in that game and the Longhorns do have some talented corners including Carrington Byndom and Quandre Diggs.
Saunders is a faster version, but he has some of the same qualities that made David Patten successful in stretches of his career. Patten was smaller than ideal but just used a combination of understanding how to get open and catch the ball to make an impact on a few different teams in his tenure but most notably the New England Patriots, where he was a starter for 44 games. He was rarely a huge playmaker but he had a knack for making a few big plays in games and being a key contributor. In the end, Patten had a 12 year career where he caught 324 passes and 25 total touchdowns. That is the type of player that Saunders could be with an added speed element.
While it is not always reflected in the NFL Draft, receivers who know how to get open and catch the ball have a knack for finding themselves on rosters and sticking around the league for years. In fact, a lot of those players end up going undrafted and then playing longer than the majority of the class that was drafted. Saunders warrants a third day pick despite his size. His speed, quickness, and ability to catch passes and make plays after the catch could be a valuable addition to teams that run an offense that fits what Saunders does in addition to being able to return punts. If he can add weight, it will certainly make it easier for a team to draft him and could find his way in the fourth or fifth round.