49ers wouldn’t have outbid Jaguars for Arden Key in free agency

Arden Key #98 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Arden Key #98 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /

The 49ers helped resurrect Arden Key’s career in 2021, and he turned his notable production last season into a quality NFL free agency deal with the Jaguars.

Heading into 2021, former Las Vegas Raiders EDGE Arden Key was looking as if his NFL career was going to fall well short of expectations.

At one point, the former LSU pass-rusher was projected to be a first-round draft prospect, only some motivational questions clouding his stock value to the point where the Raiders grabbed him in Round 3 of the 2018 NFL Draft.

During that three-year stint with Las Vegas, Key recorded a mere three sacks over 37 games played, ultimately leading to the Raiders unceremoniously jettisoning him after the 2020 season.

With a desire to reinforce their own pass rush, the San Francisco 49ers subsequently signed him to a one-year prove-it deal worth just $1.045 million.

Under the tutelage of defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, and especially after being moved inside the defensive line formation, Key’s career suddenly took off, and he finished his 2021 campaign with 6.5 sacks, second only on the Niners behind EDGE Nick Bosa‘s 15.5.

A great year for Key, no doubt.

But when San Francisco welcomed back former Seattle Seahawks defensive end Kerry Hyder, who spent 2020 with the 49ers, it appeared as if Key’s tenure with the red and gold would span a mere one year, too.

49ers lose Arden Key to Jaguars in NFL free agency

It’s anyone’s guess how serious talks were between the Niners and Key’s camp after his career-best 2021 campaign. Perhaps there were some discussions initially, but Key’s NFL free agency tour in the latter waves following the start of the new year suggested San Francisco wasn’t overly interested in bringing him back.

And when Hyder was signed, Key’s return was essentially off the books.

According to a Wednesday report from NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo, the Jacksonville Jaguars are now signing Key to a one-year deal worth up to $7 million:

It’s not unlike Hyder’s trajectory from 2020 to 2021, the latter year resulting in a noticeable payout from the Seattle Seahawks after Hyder recorded a team-best 8.5 sacks with the 49ers in 2020, only Hyder ended up being released one year into that two-year deal.

Either way, it does illustrate how Kocurek can get the most out of less-known players.

The Niners certainly wouldn’t have paid Key the $7 million he could potentially earn with the Jags, though. According to Over the Cap, San Francisco has just $1.9 million in available cap space right now, and it’ll need approximately $7 million to sign its 2022 NFL Draft class later this offseason.

Read More: 49ers 2022 NFL free agency tracker: Who’s coming and going?

Sure, there are plenty of other roster moves the 49ers could have made to create cap space. But it doesn’t appear as if they put a high priority on getting Key back into the locker room.

Whether or not that’ll pan out as a smart move is anyone’s guess, but it’s certainly great news for Key, who cashes in on his best year as a pro.

One which the Niners helped create.

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