Raiders' Arden Key much stonger, set to seize missed opportunities


Raiders' Arden Key much stonger, set to seize missed opportunities

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.

[RELATED: Whitehead happy to have veteran help on defense]

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.”

NFL preview 2019: How Raiders' offense stacks up against AFC West rivals


NFL preview 2019: How Raiders' offense stacks up against AFC West rivals

After a season in which the Raiders' offense struggled -- ranking 23rd in yards per game (336.2) and 28th in points (18.1) -- the Silver and Black gave their unit a facelift by adding Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams, Josh Jacobs, Ryan Grant and Hunter Renfrow.

With a new arsenal of offensive weapons and a full year in head coach Jon Gruden's system under his belt, quarterback Derek Carr figures to have Oakland's offense firing on a different level in 2019. 

The revamped offense should help the Raiders navigate a difficult schedule and stay afloat in the AFC West ... at least for a little bit. 

But with stars like Patrick Mahomes, Philip Rivers, Tyreek Hill, Keenan Allen and Emmanuel Sanders occupying the division, how does the Raiders' offensive unit stack up against its counterparts within the division?

Let's take a look:

Raiders vs. Chiefs

Quarterback: This one doesn't require a whole lot of analysis. Mahomes is the reigning NFL MVP, fresh off a season in which he threw for 5,907 yards and 50 touchdowns while leading the Chiefs to the AFC Championship Game. While Carr has the talent to put up MVP-caliber numbers, it's been a few years since he showcased that level of ability. Edge: Chiefs

Running backs: Without Kareem Hunt, the Chiefs' explosiveness took a hit toward the end of the NFL season. While Damien Williams filled in admirably after Hunt was released, it's unclear if he can be that effective over the course of a 16-game season.

The Raiders' running game was atrocious in 2018. The Silver and Black ranked 25th in the NFL with 1,628 yards and averaged 4.2 yards per rush, good for 21st in the league. Drafting Jacobs should give the Raiders a dynamic threat out of the backfield, but the success of the running game will be determined by the improvement of the offensive line and whether or not the downfield passing game is a credible threat. Edge: Chiefs

Wide receivers/tight ends: Yes, the Chiefs have Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. But Hill still is waiting for the NFL to make its decision on a possible suspension after child abuse allegations were levied against him, so there's no telling how many games he'll play next season. 

The Raiders brought in the best receiver in the game by acquiring Brown, and added another deep threat in Williams and a sure-handed slot man in Renfrow who will have to work his way into the lineup. Don't sleep on tight end Darren Waller who had Raiders camp buzzing all spring. I'll get bold here, and give the nod to the team with the best player. Edge: Raiders

Offensive line:  The Raiders' offensive line went from one of the best in 2017 to one of the worst in 2018. A combination of coaching change, scheme change and injuries plagued the Raiders' line from the jump. The line struggled in zone blocking and Kolton Miller battled through a number of injuries all season.

Despite a number of injuries on the interior, the Chiefs boasted one of the best offensive lines in football last season, per Pro Football Focus. Mitchell Schwartz is one of the best tackles in the game. Cam Erving was OK at left guard but he's better in a swing role if the Chiefs can find someone to replace him. KC brings back all of its starters one way or another, so this one is easy. Edge: Chiefs

Overall: Advantage Chiefs

Raiders vs. Chargers

Quarterback: At age 37, Rivers remains at the top of his game and is one of the most lethal signal-callers in the NFL. A step or two above Carr at the moment. Edge: Chargers

Running backs: Melvin Gordon wants a new deal from the Chargers, but LA is a franchise that doesn't play that game (see: Antonio Gates' three-game suspension in 2005 for missing the report date to camp). Gordon will show up eventually and Austin Ekeler is a dangerous scatback. The Raiders' running game, while it should be improved with Jacobs, doesn't measure up. Edge: Chargers

Wide receivers/ tight ends: Keenan Allen is the second-best receiver in the division. The Chargers didn't want to pay Tyrell Williams, so he headed north to the Raiders. The Bolts hope Mike Williams can fill the No. 2 role. A healthy year from tight end Hunter Henry would help the Chargers maintain their offensive output from a season ago when they averaged 26.8 points per game. But if Mike Williams can't live up to his first-round billing, the Bolts' offense could see a drop-off. Edge: Raiders

Offensive line: For all the talk about the improvement to the Chargers' offensive line, their unit had a lot of warts last year. Aside from Russell Okung, who remains a top left tackle, the Chargers' O-line struggled. Right tackle Sam Tevi gave up eight sacks and 12 hits, while left guard Dan Feeney gave up eight sacks and eight hits. LA didn't make a move to replace any of its starters, hoping the return of 2017 second-round pick Forrest Lamp can give the group a bump. Edge: Push

Overall: Rivers over Carr gives the Chargers the nod

[RELATED: Raiders' 2019 success will be determined by these three players]

Raiders vs. Broncos

Quarterback: Carr had a subpar 2018, but the Broncos had real quarterback problems last season. John Elway whiffed on the decision to bring in Case Keenum, and opted to trade for the decidedly un-elite and almost certainly washed Joe Flacco in the offseason. Not sure there's another Mile High Miracle up the Super Bowl champions sleeve. Edge: Raiders

Running backs: Phillip Lindsay surprised last season, while Royce Freeman fell flat. Both return this season and likely will be asked to carry a big load, especially if Flacco is unable to perform at the level expected of him. While Lindsay was great in his rookie season, Jacobs was the first running back off the board for a reason. He was an electric do-it-all back at Alabama and has limited wear on his tires. I expect big things from Jacobs. Edge: Raiders

Running backs/tight ends: Emmanuel Sanders is trying to return from the torn Achilles that ended his 2018 season. He's 32 and it's unclear how good he'll be when he returns. Trying to fill his shoes is Courtland Sutton, DaeSean Hamilton, Tim Patrick and rookie tight end Noah Fant. There's some potential but the group is unproven. Edge: Raiders

Offensive line: The Broncos made some changes to their offensive line this season. Last year's starting right guard now is the center. The guy who started at left guard in Week 1 now is at right guard. Denver drafted Dalton Risner, a right tackle out of Kansas State, and moved him to left guard. They signed Ja'Wuan James to play right tackle and Garrett Boles is back at left tackle. The reshuffled group could have some issues, but they also have a new offensive line coach in Mike Munchak. Edge: Push

Overall: Advantage Raiders

NFL rumors: Former Raiders receiver Martavis Bryant applies for reinstatement


NFL rumors: Former Raiders receiver Martavis Bryant applies for reinstatement

Martavis Bryant is hoping to make a return to the gridiron.

The 27-year-old receiver, who last played with the Raiders in 2018, submitted a request for reinstatement to the NFL, ESPN's Dan Graziano reported, citing league sources.

Bryant was suspended indefinitely by the NFL in December after repeatedly violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy.

The Clemson product and his attorney were able to delay the suspension by arguing the NFL didn't address Bryant's mental health and ADHD. Bryant was diagnosed with ADHD as a child. The league ultimately denied his appeal and suspended Bryant for the third time in four seasons.

Bryant and the NFL have worked since the end of last season to address the receiver's mental health and he has been submitting to drug tests regularly, Graziano reports.

[RELATED: Raiders' 2019 success will be defined by three players]

In his career, Bryant has caught 145 passes for 2,183 yards and 17 touchdowns but also has missed 36 out of a possible 80 games due to suspension.

He caught 19 passes for 266 yards in eight games for the Raiders last season.