The 6.5 sacks he tallied this season? A career high for the edge rusher. The 17 quarterback hits he delivered? Another personal best. The five stops he collected behind the line of scrimmage? One more career best per Pro Football Reference in his first voyage as a 49er…
And possibly his last as a ‘Niner.
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Key is among the 29 players listed on the team’s upcoming free agent list for 2022 per Spotrac — and Key’s name is listed under “UFA,” meaning he’ll be an unrestricted free agent.
Has Key, who signed with the ‘Niners for one-year and $1,045,000, already hinted at where he wants to be next fall? What he said on Thursday, January 13 will certainly capture the attention of the 49ers faithful.
Key Loves ‘Brotherhood’ at This Place
So what is the preferred landing spot the 25-year-old Key hinted to trek toward once free agency opens up?
The 6-foot-5, 240-pounder has let it be known — he loves the Bay Area.
“Man I love it here. I’m not thinking about contract talks. This is really a brotherhood here. No cap in our rap,” Key said via Tracy Sandler of Fan Girl Sports.
Key continued on in his raving about the 49ers culture he’s walked into, telling the Bay Area media “A lot of teams say ‘Oh yeah, we care about one another. We want to see everybody successful’ and everything like that. But, we really mean it over here. And it’s really a brotherhood. And I don’t want it to end. We don’t want it to end. So we’re taking it day by day, bringing it all in, and letting the chips fall where they may.”
Key Utilized More in 49ers’ Scheme
Unlike his previous employer the Las Vegas Raiders, Key believes he’s been utilized in ways he never thought possible — including lining up inside shade of the offensive tackles.
Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans has found ways to plug the long and undersized Key as an interior defender, but is still able to cause havoc in the trenches. Key did briefly play as a three-technique or “B” gap defender during his LSU years, but this 49ers defense has him lining up across the line more, especially in the interior.
“This would be the most reps I’ve gotten inside, and I’m liking it. I’m loving it,” Key said.
Here’s one example of Key penetrating through the Rams’ offensive line, where he is lined up near center Brian Allen and then loops around the line congestion to snatch up Matthew Stafford.
Here are more examples via Brandon Thorn of Bleacher Report on the effect Key has had on the 49ers’ front line when Ryans places him inside.
And before his arrival to the Bay Area? Key only played a combined total of 45 plays in the “B” gap over the course of three seasons while with the Silver and Black.
What the 49ers are Facing
Again, Key is putting together a career-year in a contract year.
But he’s one of six members of the defensive line unit set to enter free agency. Along with Key, fellow defensive ends Kentavius Street and Jordan Willis are in the “UFA” category. And the latter two edge rushers have a cheaper value at $767,551 and $990,000, respectively.
Key, given his production and youth, could see a pay increase elsewhere — unless the 49ers manage to pull something out that could keep Key on board for one more season.
Nevertheless, the 49ers have become the best thing to happen in Key’s young NFL career, to the point where he’s loving being a ‘Niner.
“It’s exceeded my expectations,” Key said. “What I would say — I’d say I expected everything, but it’s different when you expect it and then when you’re actually living in the reality of it.”