Former 49ers Defender Called ‘Under the Radar’ Free Agent

Arden Key

Getty Arden Key celebrates a sack on November 7, 2021 in Santa Clara.

Could a former San Francisco 49ers defender be in for a pay raise by Wednesday, March 15?

Better yet, could the 49ers make the attempt to re-lure him back? With defensive line help becoming an offseason need?

Heavy senior NFL reporter Matt Lombardo on Thursday, March 9 unveiled his listing of five “under the radar free agents” who are on the cusp of seeing a financial elevation. And one of the free agents mentioned happened to have his best sack production as a 49er while entering free agency once again: Edge rusher Arden Key — who appears to be on his way out of Jacksonville.

“Key seemed to find a home in the swarming Jaguars front-seven,” Lombardo wrote. “With the versatility to stop the run on the way to the quarterback and explosiveness off the snap, Key is coming into his own at at age 26. Last season, Key notched 4.5 sacks and 27 tackles to go with 44 quarterback pressures, while notching an 81.3 overall grade from Pro Football Focus.”

Key said on January 21 that he would love to return to the Jags. However, with him in the unrestricted category, plus the Jaguars having only $6.9 million in cap space to work with per Over the Cap, Jacksonville may have a hard time keeping Key — which can benefit the 49ers if he’s released.

NFL Exec Lauds Key’s Play, ‘Can Really Rush the Passer’

Lombardo isn’t the only one lauding Key’s play as a QB attacker. One NFL executive who spoke to Lombardo took a liking to the towering 6-foot-5, 240-pound edge rusher.

“He’s a really good third-down guy who can really rush the passer,” an NFC personnel executive told Heavy. “He’s a tweener, but definitely on the bigger end as far as smallish linebackers go.”

This past season, Key was able to provide this kind of physicality as a blindside attacker for the Jags:

And he showed his ability to hustle then finish violently:

But again, Jacksonville is facing a challenge if they were to lock up Key long term or even on a one-year “prove it” deal — which was technically his 2022 contract. Already, his name has been linked with multiple suitors ranging from Jacksonville’s AFC South rival the Houston Texans (Key delivered his best sack season under new Texans head coach DeMeco Ryans), the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons.

Lombardo, meanwhile, lists the Falcons as one of Key’s three best fits along with the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens.

Key Would Make up For Potential S.F. Losses & Follow Current Trend

Again, there are reasons to believe the 49ers shouldn’t be ruled out for Key’s services in 2023.

For starters, the 49ers are already anticipated to lose Charles Omenihu and Samson Ebukam as unrestricted free agents once the free agency signing period kicks off. Jordan Willis and Kerry Hyder are also UFAs.

But if Key were to come back, he’d follow this current trend going on in the Bay Area: The defensive linemen who re-link with Kris Kocurek. Especially those like Hyder who delivered a career-best mark through him and eventually found his way back. Akeem Spence was another former Kocurek player who reunited with him (played with the DL coach for the Detroit Lions in 2017).

Luring Key back would also give the 49ers someone who’s already familiar with the defense and expectations in the DL room. Plus this time, would give the edge rush room even more speed with Key reuniting with Nick Bosa but also being paired with Drake Jackson.

If the 49ers are unable to lure him back over, the next option is likely turning to the draft — including using one of their league-high seven compensatory picks to draft a rusher.

Defender Compared to Ex-Rival Met With 49ers at Combine, Analyst Says

While there are plenty of options at DE, the 49ers happened to speak with one at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine who’s gotten comparisons to a past NFC West rival of the Niners: Dante Fowler Jr. who suited up for the Los Angeles Rams during their 2018 NFC title run.

Per this spreadsheet created by Steph Sanchez of SB Nation, Felix Anudike-Uzomah of Kansas State was among the defenders who interacted with the Niners in Indianapolis. The Wildcat brings the strength/long frame element that Key popularized in his time with the 49ers.

Perhaps the KSU star could fall to No. 99 or at 101 and 102 when S.F. makes their third round picks on April 28 in Kansas City.

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