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. Every year, it seems as though he has added another key element to his game, really working to refine his technique.
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. Nevertheless, he plays tough and is not afraid to go out and block. 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. Saunders projects as a day three pick, but looks to be someone who can contribute immediately on special teams and as a receiver in the slot.
Vitals & Build
Saunders is listed at 5’9” 157lbs 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 and while he will always be a disadvantage, he is able to maximize the strength he possesses. He has a frame that looks like it can support more weight, but to this point, it has not happened. 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 too spread out and it results in false steps as he has to gather himself to get off of the line too often. It actually makes it easier for opponents who want to jam him off of the line, because he has to make an extra move to set up and then work to avoid the press.
Saunders has worked to be a more precise and effective route runner. He has the quickness and feet to create separation. The one area he can work to improve is being more consistent with sinking his hips into his cuts. When he does it, he is able to really make clean cuts, transition his body weight more effectively and be efficient with how many steps he needs to take. Saunders has also gotten in the habit of using his hands as a way to work past defenders, which has been beneficial as well.
One of the reasons that Saunders is able to create separation is the way he attacks right at the defensive back, making them react and then makes his cut off of their reaction. If they make the wrong movement, he is able to create significant separation.
Saunders will run routes anywhere and has been fearless in going across the middle. He does a great job with quick hitting routes that ask him to make a quick cut and get the football, but he also has the long speed to be a deep threat down the field on vertical routes.
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 really equipped to box out opponents, so his ability to create separation is extremely important.
Run After Catch
This is where Saunders shows he could really have a great deal of potential 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.
Last year, Saunders gave a lot of effort but largely functioned as a speed bump. This year, he has really stepped up and became an effective blocker in spite of his size. He has become extremely aggressive, gets in between the opponent and the ball carrier and continues to work through the play, humbling several opponents with more size. Saunders also works to block through the echo of the whistle.
As effective as he is on running plays, he seems to step up his effort when it comes to blocking for fellow receivers after the catch. He sprints down the field looking to seal off opponents or land some crushing blocks, putting defenders on the ground that have allowed teammates to make bigger plays and score touchdowns.
Saunders has worked to improve his angles, employed better techniques and just gotten significantly better in that aspect of his game. There is always going to be a slight concern because he is smaller than opponents, but for teams that want to run the ball and have viable slot receivers who can help open up running lanes, Saunders has shown he can contribute on running downs.
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 and has shown impressive toughness, 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.
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.
Jalen Saunders has really worked to become a well-rounded wide receiver; he just happens to be a 157lb version. He can be an effective route runner, catches the ball well and is an aggressive blocker who can also return punts. While Saunders is most naturally built to play as a slot receiver and specialist, his willingness to block makes it so that he could defy odds and be able to contribute on running downs. There will be teams who likely rule him out of their draft plans purely on size. Nevertheless, Saunders projects as a third day prospect who could be a quick contributor as a slot receiver out in space who can also return punts.
Some of the film used in this scouting breakdown was provided by the good folks at draftbreakdown.com