Arden Key Is Set To Play Critical Role For Titans' Defense, Writes Mike Herndon

By MIKE HERNDON, columnist

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It has been impossible not to notice Arden Key early in Titans' training camp.

When the free agent addition isn’t popping up in the backfield again… and again… and again, he’s – loudly – rooting on his defensive teammates and chirping at the offense. His energy level is intense and unrivaled among players on both the current Titans squad and any other version of the team that I’ve covered over the past six years.

Tennessee Titans linebacker Arden Key (49) runs during an OTA practice at Ascension Saint Thomas Sports Park in Nashville, Tenn., Wednesday, May 31, 2023.
Arden Key/ © Andrew Nelles / The Tennessean / USA TODAY NETWORK

Key brings an easy smile, a big personality, and a loud voice to a team that has sometimes lacked that type of presence. Defensive coordinator Shane Bowen talked on Tuesday about him being able to bring some teammates along, which can be an asset for a team over the grind of a 17-game season.

Of course, being loud and energetic means nothing if there isn’t production to go along with it. Practice sacks don’t count, but if they did, Key would probably already be ready to renegotiate his contract. His current running total – as estimated by Key and Austin Stanley of AtoZ Sports – is now at 14 through his first five training camp practices in Tennessee, including a seven-sack day last Friday.

Speaking of Key’s contract, it’s worth noting that he received the most guaranteed money ($13 million) of any of the Titans' veteran additions this offseason, including DeAndre Hopkins ($10.98 million) and the man often tasked with blocking him in camp, Andre Dillard ($10 million). That’s a pretty clear indication of how Ran Carthon and Mike Vrabel viewed him as a free agent and it makes him one of a very short list of Titans players who are virtually guaranteed to be on the roster in 2024.

Mike HerndonKey was the first name I mentioned back in February when I previewed the market for edge rushers. As I wrote then:

“The best options aren’t big names, but could be good investments, starting with Arden Key, who saw his career get revived in San Francisco in 2021 and then provided good value as a rotational rusher for the Jaguars last season.

His 18.1 percent win rate was 15th among 49 edge rushers with at least 325 pass rush snaps last season, sandwiched between Montez Sweat and teammate Josh Allen. He’ll be 27 next season and seems to still be ascending as a player at the NFL level after a slow start to his career.”

Key’s career has become quite a redemption story. After breaking out with 11 sacks as a sophomore at LSU, he was largely viewed as a future first-round pick. Injuries and off-field issues, which included him checking into rehab for marijuana addiction, dropped his draft stock in 2017, leading to him being selected by the Raiders in the third round with the 87th overall pick.

In Oakland, he was thrown directly into the fire, playing more than 50 percent of snaps in 13 of 16 games as a rookie for the league’s worst defense. Key struggled to produce, notching just one sack despite heavy playing time.

He was reduced to a rotational role in 2019 and had his season ended early by a foot fracture, producing no sacks and just 12 total pressures by PFF charting. After getting healthy before the start of the 2020 season, Key remained in a depth role, contributing two sacks in over 14 games. Before the start of the 2021 NFL draft, Key was released by the Raiders.

Key’s time with the Raiders was clearly a failure, but there are some advanced numbers that suggested the career rebirth that we’ve seen over the past two years was coming. His pass rush win rate, again as charted by PFF, went from 9.1 percent in 2018 (60th among 109 qualified edge rushers) to 11.2 percent in 2019 (38th out of 118) to 11.6 percent in 2020 (36th out of 117).

Next came an extremely smart move by Key.

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He signed a one-year, $1 million contract to go play under defensive line guru Kris Kocurek in San Francisco, a man widely viewed as the best in the business at developing young pass rushers. Despite playing just 35 percent of defensive snaps on a loaded defensive line that also featured Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Samson Ebukam, and D.J. Jones, Key produced career highs in sacks (6.5), total pressures (39), QB hits (14), and pass rush win rate (11.8 percent) while lining up all over the 49ers' defensive front.

That breakout season earned him a pay raise, and he signed a one-year, $4 million contract in Jacksonville, where again, he found himself in a rotational role behind Josh Allen and first overall pick Travon Walker. Like in San Francisco, Jaguars defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell deployed Key all over the defensive line, giving him almost 100 snaps as an interior rusher as well as his rotational spot on the edge. Key’s performance continued to improve, setting yet another career-best mark in pass rush win rate at 13.8 percent to go along with 51 total pressures and 13 QB hits.

While in Jacksonville, Key also produced the highest PFF run defense grade that he’s earned in his career at 75.1, good for 17th among edge rushers, something that the Titans will want to see expanded as he transitions into more of a full-time role.

There is good reason to believe that Key’s best football may be ahead of him as well. He’s still just 27 years old, and by his own self-admission, has grown a lot over the course of his five-year NFL career.

While talking to the media – and teammate Azeez Al-Shaair – on Tuesday, Key claimed that he “used to be fat” during his time in San Francisco, something he’s focused on during training over the last two offseasons. His performance in training camp to this point indicates that the increased focus on conditioning has paid off for the talented edge rusher.

What will be fascinating to watch as the season begins is how the Titans choose to deploy their pass rush pieces. Both Denico Autry and Key have inside-outside versatility from a rush standpoint as Key has primarily lined up as a defensive tackle on third downs for both the 49ers and Jaguars the last two seasons. That’s something Autry has done frequently since signing with Tennessee in 2021. In fact, Key mentioned Autry last week as a guy who he’s studied and modeled some of his game after even before joining him with the Titans.

That versatility should allow Bowen to hunt matchups throughout the season and keep defenses from knowing where any of the Titans' top pass rushers might be lining up consistently.

To get a feel for Key as a player, let’s look at some snaps from last season in Jacksonville, starting with his usage as an interior pass rusher. This first clip features Key lined up in as a three-technique in the gap between the left guard and left tackle. He uses an impressive chop-swim combo to beat Dalton Risner and sack Russell Wilson.

Here is another similar rep.

Key’s positioning is even wider here as he’s lined up outside of Titans' right tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere, but he quickly jumps inside and uses another swim move to beat Jordan Roos and flush Josh Dobbs from the pocket. Key was a menace in both matchups against Tennessee last year.

While I think he’s most effective rushing from inside, Key can also create pressure as a traditional edge rusher. Here, he beats Broncos left tackle Calvin Anderson with a nice cross-chop move, forcing a rushed throw from Wilson.

And here, he uses his hands to get inside leverage against Cowboys left tackle Tyler Smith and pushes his way all the way to a sack of Dak Prescott.

As I mentioned above, Key scored highly as a run defender last season and the tape backs it up. He only played limited snaps on early downs, but when he was out there, he was effective at setting the edge as he does here against Tyler Smith. This is textbook from Key here.

I’ll finish with something that was a bit of a surprise for me when I really cut on the Key tape… his motor and instincts are outstanding. Here, he flashes high-level awareness as he notices the back leaking out for a screen during his pass rush, redirects, and breaks up the play, nearly grabbing a one-handed interception in the process.

Key’s motor was non-stop on tape, constantly making plays like the one below where he chases down a screen from the backside of the play and puts a massive hit on Chargers running back Joshua Kelly.

Key’s fit into this defense is excellent, especially from a pass-rush standpoint. No team likes to use games and stunts up front more than the Titans and Key should thrive in that scheme with his athleticism benefitting from playing with two of the best “pickers” in the NFL in Jeffery Simmons and Autry.

I’d describe Key’s game as a mash-up of Landry and Autry, bringing some elements of Landry’s athleticism and Autry’s length and power to the table for a unique blend of skills.

The Titans' ability to mix and match where Simmons, Autry, Landry, and Key all line up along with the talent level of those four players give Mike Vrabel’s defense one of the best fronts in the NFL heading into 2023, and early returns on Key suggest that we all may be underrating what this group could be.


Follow Mike Herndon on what I still call Twitter at @MikeHerndonNFL.

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