Few players have dealt with the type of adversity that Jalen Saunders has throughout his football career.
After a stellar sophomore year at Fresno State during which Saunders catch 50 balls for 1,065 yards and 12 touchdowns — that’s a 21.3 yards-per-catch average *insert wide eyes emoji* — a change in coaching staff at Fresno State had the diminutive receiver looking elsewhere for a shot.
Saunders transferred for the 2012 NCAA season and was forced to sit out the team’s first four games. He produced consistently after entering the lineup, ending his career in Norman with 123 catches for 1,558 yards and 11 touchdowns in 22 games.
His production at the collegiate level led to Saunders being selected in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL draft by the New York Jets. He saw action as a return specialist in three games but was released.
Saunders bounced around the NFL from practice squad to practice squad before a 10-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy saw him out of the league for good. Another set back for the talented wideout.
After a stint in The Spring League, Saunders finally found his way up to Canada by signing with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats ahead of the 2017 season. He began the year in a familiar place — on the practice roster — before an injury to the Ticats star receiver Terrence Toliver opened up a roster spot for Saunders.
Once he hit the field, Saunders became one of the most productive receivers in the CFL, finishing the 2017 season with 76 catches for 1,170 yards and four touchdowns. He led the Tabbies in receiving yards, finishing fifth in the league in that category, and was one of three Hamilton receivers to reach 1,000 yards alongside Luke Tasker and Brandon Banks.
To say 2017 was a breakout year for Saunders would be an understatement, and a lot was expected of him in his second season. He did not disappoint.
Saunders began the year hot with more than 700 receiving yards heading into the 2018 Labour Day Classic. He was well on his way to another 1,000-yard season when adversity struck again.
During the second quarter against Toronto, Saunders leapt to catch a pass and landed awkwardly, clutching his knee as he laid on the turf at Tim Hortons Field. Two days later the worst was confirmed: Saunders had torn his ACL and would be out for the rest of the season. The setbacks continue.
Despite the injury, the Ticats signed Saunders in December to a contract extension, but released him before he ever got back on the field. He did not play at all in 2019, but found his way to the XFL’s Houston Roughnecks via his old Ticats’ head coach June Jones.
Saunders was placed on injured reserve at the start of the season and never had a chance to showcase himself when the league shut down for good due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Add this to the list of bad luck Saunders has experienced during his career.
Despite not playing a single down of football since September 3, 2018, 3DownNation insider Justin Dunk broke the news in April — less than two weeks after the XFL shut down — that Ottawa had signed Saunders to a one-year contract.
The thought of Saunders playing in Paul LaPolice’s offensive system had Redblacks fans exited. But as we all know, the 2020 CFL season never happened and Saunders later decided to opt out of his Redblacks contract.
It seems almost silly to say that a guy who has played just 25 CFL games could be one of the league’s top 100 players, but if you remember what Saunders looked like during his 2017 and 2018 campaigns, you know he belongs on this list.
Whether Saunders heads back to Ottawa for the 2021 season or finds himself on another team, one thing is for certain: wherever he lands, he will produce. He did it at Fresno State, Oklahoma and Hamilton, and he will undoubtedly do it again provided he remains healthy.
3DownNation is unveiling its list of the top 100 active CFL players, a project that will run through December 31, 2020. To read the criteria for player eligibility, click here. The list to date can be found below.
77. QB Dane Evans, Hamilton Tiger-Cats
78. REC Brad Sinopoli, Ottawa Redblacks
79. RET Janarion Grant, Free Agent
80. DE Avery Ellis, Ottawa Redblacks
81. DE Cordarro Law, Calgary Stampeders
82. DB Brandon Alexander, Winnipeg Blue Bombers
83. OL Jermarcus Hardrick, Winnipeg Blue Bombers
84. DB Branden Dozier, Free Agent
85. SAM Otha Foster, Saskatchewan Roughriders
86. DB Antoine Pruneau, Ottawa Redblacks
87. RB John White, B.C. Lions
88. LB Avery Williams, Ottawa Redblacks
89. LB Jovan Santos-Knox, Free Agent
90. DB Richard Leonard, Calgary Stampeders
91. REC Armanti Edwards, Edmonton Football Team
92. RB C.J. Gable, Free Agent
93. DT Mike Rose, Calgary Stampeders
94. REC S.J. Green, Free Agent
95. DB Mike Edem, Saskatchewan Roughriders
96. DE John Bowman, Montreal Alouettes
97. DB Taylor Loffler, Montreal Alouettes
98. QB Nick Arbuckle, Ottawa Redblacks
99. ST Mike Miller, Winnipeg Blue Bombers
100. DE Chris Casher, B.C. Lions