Another member of last season’s San Francisco 49ers signed this off-season with a new team. On Wednesday, the Jacksonville Jaguars announced they have signed defensive lineman Arden Key to a one-year deal. NFL Network reporter Mike Garafolo reported that the deal could be worth as much as $7 million. However, not enough details have been reported to know the actual salary cap and compensatory choice implications of the signing.
Key was an acclaimed prospect during his college career at LSU. He recorded 12 sacks during his sophomore season, but injuries and off-field questions caused his stock to plummet. The Raiders drafted him in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft out of LSU, but he never developed into an impact player with them. Despite playing in 37 games (10 starts) with the 2018-2020 Raiders, Key recorded only three sacks and eight tackles for losses. Without high-level production, Key was released last season by Las Vegas.
The 49ers soon signed Key to a low-risk $1,045 million one-year contract to see if they could help him realize the potential he showed early in his career. It ended up being one of their best moves of the off-season.
Key only played 35% of the 49ers’ defensive snaps last season, but he was one of their most prolific pass rushers. Key earned more and more playing time as the season went on, especially when the Niners started putting him in on the inside line. In the smallest role of his career, Key achieved career highs in almost every notable stat. He recorded 22 tackles, 17 quarterback hits, 6.5 sacks and five tackles for a loss. His 69.5 overall and 79.4 pass-rushing PFF numbers were both jumps above his best performance with the Raiders.
Key’s track record and promising 2021 season made him one of the more intriguing free agents this offseason. A team that believed in Key as an amateur prospect could see his 2021 as a sign that he was finally living up to his early career expectations. On the other hand, there are also reasonable concerns that Key took advantage of the 49ers’ defensive environment, which has helped several players have the best seasons of their careers in recent years.
Key now heads to Jacksonville, where he should be given plenty of opportunities to thrive in a bigger role. Granted, that will come with arguably the weakest supporting cast of his career. Pro Bowl edge rusher Josh Allen is currently the only elite player in the Jaguars’ defense squad. But if Key can build on his success in 2021, he will be well positioned for a huge payday next season.
The limited space for the 49ers’ salary cap always made a reunion with Key unlikely, especially after they used most of their flexibility to sign Charvarius Ward. While the terms of Key’s contract are unknown, his departure will likely give the Niners the chance to receive an additional compensatory pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.
The 49ers are currently scheduled to receive a fifth round comp pick for DJ Jones’ departure and seventh round comp picks for Raheem Mostert and K’Waun Williams, per OverTheCap. Assuming Key’s contract includes at least $4 million in combined base pay and signing bonus, he should position the Niners to add a sixth-round comp pick if they don’t sign another free agent to a similar deal.