Arden Key hit the opposing quarterback 11 times last year, with just one sack to show for it. The young Raiders edge rusher came ever-so-close even more than that, with position coach Brenston Buckner crediting him with 13 “almost” sacks during his rookie year.
Then, just to emphasize his point, Buckner put that baker’s dozen on one film clip and told Key there was something he should see.
“As soon as he got hired, he called,” Key said Wednesday. “I talked to him then and I was here all offseason working out, so when I got here, and he got in the office, he brought me upstairs and yeah...”
Yeah. All those golden opportunities played in rapid succession, one cringe-worthy moment after another, after another.
“Whether I fell, slipped or the quarterback got away,” Key said. “So, it was very nerve-racking because I could have had a better first year, but we all learn from those mistakes.”
That’s Key’s primary objective heading into his second NFL season. The LSU product was drafted in the third round to be a situational pass rusher behind Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin, but we all know how that story goes.
Key ended up playing a ton, nearly every down while learning hard lessons on the fly. He did so while battling a shoulder injury suffered in training camp, playing around 238 pounds in a scheme that benefits from bigger defensive ends.
He made no excuses then, even though he had some. Narrow misses and overall pass-rush struggles increased pressure on Key, who pushed and fought but could not get the sacks that came so easily at LSU.
Buckner didn’t just acknowledge a problem. He’s setting Key up to fix it.
“There are ways to help technique-wise,” Buckner said last month on the Raiders Insider Podcast. “This game isn't all about brute strength. There are techniques to help you get one more inch closer to the guy, and now instead of just missing or trying to make a one-arm tackle, you can get both arms around and make a play. That's what Arden is working on.”
He’s also working on something else.
He played last season in the 230's, and coaches wanted him to bulk up this offseason and give him a better chance to succeed in the scheme.
Key reported to the Raiders offseason program at 245, after being on his own for three months. The new strength staff started controlling his diet at that point, and he quickly packed on quality pounds in a hurry. Key finished this week’s minicamp at 260, a solid number he can refine into greater strength during this down period and through training camp.
What’s the recipe for putting on the right weight?
“Salmon, broccoli, rice, a lot of rice, chicken, steak, asparagus and that’s it,” Key said.
That can get a bit tiresome over long days and weeks, with the calories so high with the same damn food.
“It’s annoying. It’s the same thing over and over again,” Key said. “The taste, I got to ask them to add some hot sauce to it, or a little salt and pepper, but I got to do what I got to do.”
Increased size and strength, while maintaining the trademark athleticism and bend that got him drafted in the first place is key to getting right and maximizing opportunities.
There’s more he can learn, to avoid bad memories. Missing then Denver quarterback Case Keenum in Week 2, when a strip sack was available, sticks out the most, and is a driving force as he develops under Buckner’s watchful eye.
The “almost” sack video was followed by weeks of how to fix his problem, including times where he got beat before the play even started.
“That’s all ‘Buck’ has been teaching me as far as my angles,” Key said. “He started off with how I missed the sacks just by my alignment. The ball isn’t snapped yet, I just missed the sack already by (how I lined up). Whether I was too wide, too tight, I didn’t turn my hips enough or I didn’t reach for him, turn my hips and different things like that. Most of it was just alignment and knowing what angles to take. Football is all about angles.”