Free agency doesn’t just add new faces to every NFL roster annually including for the San Francisco 49ers. The time period can also bring back familiar players to the team.
Kerry Hyder was one who found his way back to the Niners last free agency. But could the 49ers be in a position to reel back in another stout rusher from the 49ers’ past?
NFL analyst Peter Panacy of FanSided mentioned on Sunday, February 19 this name who’s eligible for a comeback to the Bay Area once free agency begins on March 15: Arden Key.
The towering edge rusher was only on a one-year deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars and is back at being an unrestricted free agent who can sign elsewhere.
Key Had Career Surge With 49ers
As Panacy wrote, Key went from potential NFL disappointment out of LSU to thriving in the 49ers’ defense.
“Arden Key was shaping up to be a massive bust with the Las Vegas Raiders before turning his career around in 2021 during his one and only year with the Niners,” Panacy wrote. “That translated into a rewarding one-year, $4 million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2022, and Key managed to put forth 4.5 sacks after recording a career-best 6.5 sacks with San Francisco the year before.”
But while with the Niners, defensive line coach Kris Kocurek and defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans found a unique way to best utilize the undersized 6-foot-5, 240-pounder — by sometimes placing him as a three-technique defensive tackle. But the end result was Key using foot explosion and a hand swipe move to outduel guards on his way to the quarterback — getting four of his sacks as an interior defender.
Jacksonville under defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell used a similar setup for Key during the preseason. However, Key was sometimes used as a “wide 9″ defensive end to crash down on the pocket.
How Key Could Return
As stockpiled the 49ers are in the defensive trenches, there could be some significant changes across the defensive line of scrimmage as Panacy pointed out.
“The 49ers may bid farewell to their current No. 2 pass-rusher, Samson Ebukam, this offseason. That’ll likely free up some money to go after some supplementary pass-rushing help, and Key fits squarely into that category,” Panacy said.
One possible sales pitch: Reuniting with Kocurek once again — as past defensive linemen under him like Hyder and Akeem Spence eventually found their way back to him.
“He already performed well enough under the tutelage of Niners defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, and another shot could prove valuable again,” Panacy writes.
However, any attempt of coaxing Key to return could have this dilemma: The Jaguars still resigning him and Key himself telling reporters back on January 21 what he already has in mind for 2023.
“Everybody under contract except me and 1-7 [tight end Evan Engram]. I think they’re going to bring us back and add more to it,” Key said via Mia O’Brien of 92.5 FM. “We’re going to add a couple pieces in to get us over the hump. All in all, it’s the same football team coming back next year and we gonna be better.”
He also included he bought a house in Duval County, best known as the county the Jaguars represent in Florida.
Still, Key delivered his best production as a 49er and the allure of reuniting with Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and company may become too enticing. And if the 49ers do get ravaged by free agency in the defensive trenches, then re-pursuing Key could end up becoming a priority to keep the pass rush train going.