49ers roster 2021: Arden Key needs to bounce back

Arden Key #99 of the Oakland Raiders (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
Arden Key #99 of the Oakland Raiders (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images) /

The 49ers took a low-risk flier on former Raiders EDGE Arden Key this offseason, and yet they need him to be a solid depth contributor in 2021.

If the San Francisco 49ers had a deep crop of proven pass-rushers behind presumed starters like EDGEs Nick Bosa and Samson Ebukam, the offseason pickup of former Las Vegas Raiders EDGE Arden Key wouldn’t be too big a deal.

Earlier this offseason, shortly after the Raiders jettisoned their third-round pick from the 2018 NFL Draft, the Niners made the low-risk, potentially high-reward move by grabbing Key and signing him to a one-year deal worth up to $1.045 million on April 23.

The deal was substantial enough to suggest San Francisco wanted to keep Key on the roster, particularly with $125,000 in guaranteed money. But after a relatively lackluster career with the Raiders, it was anyone’s guess if he’d be able to do enough to hang around with the 49ers in 2021.

Arden Key Defense & Fumbles Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
Generated 7/1/2021.

Key has long since had the talent to thrive, but injuries and questions about his work ethic haven’t done him too many favors. And those negative traits ultimately hindered his own NFL Draft stock entering 2018, too.

The 6-foot-5, 240-pound EDGE out of LSU was once viewed as a potential first-round pick back in 2016. But that stock fell dramatically in 2017, ultimately leading to him being selected in Round 3.

With just three sacks over the first three years of his NFL career, it’s pretty safe to say he needs a massive bounce-back if he hopes to reinvigorate an otherwise frustrating pro tenure.

Why Arden Key improves with 49ers in 2021

For starters, at least Key is taking his release from Las Vegas in stride, according to his Instagram post shared on Bleacher Report:

"THIS WAS THE BEST THING THAT COULD HAVE HAPPENED TO ME!Why is this good for me…? BECAUSE MY REJUVINATION For Football, and my impact I want and will make on the world is bigger than ever!"

Good to be in that mindset.

But now comes the tough part: translating the attitude onto the field.

Perhaps the biggest element will be the opportunity. Key might have been a low-risk flier from the Niners’ vantage point. But after losing reserve EDGE Jordan Willis to a six-game suspension because of a PED violation, Key now finds himself one of the more senior and experienced depth pass-rushers on San Francisco’s roster.

Related Story: 49ers pass-rush depth will be tested after Jordan Willis suspension

Willis can still practice between now and Week 1, yes. But Key should get some extra looks during training camp with the hopes of being one of those primary rotational players to help support defenders like Bosa.

If the 25-year-old Key is able to put his raw talents in tandem with his focus, it wouldn’t be surprising to see his game improve.

Why Arden Key flames out with 49ers in 2021

It would be one thing if the Raiders released Key after just a season or two. But in the wake of three disappointing years, both in terms of his statistics and role, it’s pretty safe to suggest what we’ve seen from Key at the NFL level is simply who he is.

While it appears Key’s off-field concerns from LSU are long behind him, the lack of impact over the last three years is problematic.

Granted, the Raiders haven’t exactly boasted a quality defense during Key’s tenure there, and one could figure Key would benefit from the tutelage of defensive line coach Kris Kocurek. Sometimes, a change in scenery is all that’s needed.

Yet that doesn’t automatically mean Key will be better.

As big a chance he will improve, it’s equally possible he winds up bottoming out again with the 49ers, too, which could have disastrous impacts on his pro future.

Chances of making 49ers’ 53-man roster

If Willis was going to be on the roster in Week 1, Key’s chances would be slimmer. And while the $125,000 in guaranteed money is significant, it’s nowhere close enough to make him anything but a bubble-watch player heading into training camp.

Fortunately, at least from Key’s vantage point, there isn’t a lot of competition for backup edge rushers heading into 2021.

The Niners have rostered reserve EDGEs in Daeshon Hall and Alex Barrett, who don’t exactly boast a great deal of experience or proven impact. And while it’s possible San Francisco winds up bringing aboard a free agent to make up for the loss of Willis and to provide some solid rotational play, Key now has a better chance to hang around.

Regardless, he’ll have to prove himself during camp and will likely get a good deal of snaps during the preseason, too, helping San Francisco determine whether or not the low-risk signing could end up providing much of a benefit.

If so, Key could be on track towards turning his career around. That’s the hope, anyway.

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