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 Draft 2020: Could Raiders draft, develop Oklahoma's Jalen Hurts?

NFL Draft 2020: Could Raiders draft, develop Oklahoma's Jalen Hurts?

As we wait for the NFL free-agent quarterback dominoes to fall *cough* Tom Brady *cough* -- NFL teams are gathered in Indianapolis to meet with, critique and study the next crop of NFL signal-callers. 

This current group of quarterbacks is top-heavy, with Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow, Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa and Oregon's Justin Herbert all slated to go in the top-10. After that, it's a who's who of hit-and-miss prospects with intriguing skills and huge question marks.

The Raiders aren't viable for the top three. Burrow is bound for the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Raiders shouldn't make the move up for Tagovailoa or Herbert, as talented as they might be. 

That leaves the middle tier of quarterbacks. Polarizing prospects like Utah State's Jordan Love, Georgia's Jake Fromm, Washington's Jacob Eason and Oklahoma's Jalen Hurts.

The Raiders have spoken with Fromm -- who I discussed here -- Love and Hurts.

The Athletic's Vic Tafur reported Wednesday that Hurts had a good meeting with the Raiders and the team is "intrigued by his upside."

Should the Raiders draft Hurts on Day 2 -- when they have three third-round picks -- the selection would be one with an eye on the future, hoping Jon Gruden can develop and mold the Alabama/Oklahoma product into a quarterback who can dominate the new age of the NFL.

During his time in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Norman, Okla., Hurts went 38-4 as a starter. He won the 2016 SEC Offensive Player of the Year award when he led the Crimson Tide to the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game. Hurts eventually lost his starting job to Tagovailoa at halftime of the 2018 title game.

Overall, he went 38-4 as a starter at both Alabama and Oklahoma. The losses were to Deshaun Watson, Burrow, No. 6 Auburn and an upset loss to Kansas State last season. He has steadily improved as a quarterback during his four seasons.

Hurts is the ideal quarterback for the modern NFL. He has great mobility and will kill teams with his legs if he isn't contained. He's light on his feet, has a strong arm and really improved his deep-ball touch during this last season at Oklahoma under noted quarterback guru Lincoln Riley.

One of Hurts' best traits is his pocket awareness. As if he has eyes in the back of his head, Hurts constantly escapes danger by doing the unthinkable. He's very poised and his ability to extend plays and make something out of nothing is a skill that should be valued. He has all the skills to be a perfect weapon in an RPO-style attack.

He's great on the move as a roll-out passer.

As discussed, the deep-ball was much better at Oklahoma.

The improvisation is a plus.

His legs can be a big weapon.

So, what's not to like?

Hurts still has some growing to do as a passer who can move the ball effectively on NFL defenses. His anticipation at times was lacking and he seemed to have some issues moving off his first read when going through his progressions. While not inaccurate, Hurts sometimes has issues with ball-placement and will need to work on being more precise at the next level.

He also has a tendency to lose his accuracy when facing pressure.

Hurts finished the season throwing for 38 touchdowns, 3,851 yards and eight interceptions.

Some wondered if Hurts would try and switch positions at the next level, but his answer was clear at the combine.

“Yeah you know, I’ve always been a team-first guy,” Hurts said Tuesday. “But I think I’m a quarterback. I think that’s that.”

[RELATED: Raiders should do whatever it takes to draft Isaiah Simmons]

If the Raiders do go into the 2020 season with Derek Carr as their starting quarterback, Hurts could be a nice developmental quarterback to sit for year or two in order to sharpen his skills.

Some polishing is needed, but Hurts has tremendous upside in today's NFL. The Raiders clearly see that, and a third-round pick would be worth the gamble.

NFL rumors: Tom Brady, Patriots appear very far apart in free agency

NFL rumors: Tom Brady, Patriots appear very far apart in free agency

It's negotiating season, and the most high-profile soon-to-be-free-agent in NFL history seems to be wielding his power.

Thursday morning, multiple reports dropped centering around Tom Brady and the reported gap between him and the New England Patriots, opening the door further for the six-time Super Bowl champion to exit Foxboro, Mass. 

ESPN's Jeff Darlington also reported that Brady is entering free agency with the idea that he will be playing for a new team when he is under center in 2020.

All this likely was leaked from Brady's camp in an effort to get the Patriots to offer him the money he desires and agree to surround him with the necessary weapons to win a championship. While agent Don Yee seems to be trying to strong-arm the Patriots, it's beginning to appear more and more likely that Brady and coach Bill Belichick will say their peace and go their separate ways after two decades of dominance.

The 42-year-old quarterback is expected to test free agency, and the Raiders, along with the Tennessee Titans, Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Chargers, have been heavily linked to the legendary quarterback, hoping to give their rebuild a jolt by adding the greatest quarterback of all-time.

On its face, the Raiders adding Brady would appear to go against the idea of a ground-up rebuild. But can Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock really say no to Brady if he indeed wants to call Sin City his new home? Should they?

Mayock said he was pleased with quarterback Derek Carr's play in 2019, but the Raiders will evaluate and look to upgrade any and all positions, including quarterback. Signing Brady, even at age 42 going on 43, would qualify as an upgrade. Brady's numbers dipped in 2019, but it was a product of having a receiver group that couldn't get separation, had drop issues and was one of the most undynamic groups in the league.

That's an issue for the Raiders, who had their own wide receiver issues last season. But starting with a core of Hunter Renfrow, Tyrell Williams and tight end Darren Waller is appealing, and the Raiders are sure to use at least one of their two first-round picks on a receiver. They also have over $50 million in cap space to use in free agency, although a large chunk of that would go to Brady.

Couple that with a powerful running game spearheaded by Josh Jacobs, and one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, and the Raiders' cupboard isn't as bare as it might seem.

[RELATED: Raiders should do whatever it takes to draft Isaiah Simmons]

Adding Brady would force the Raiders to aggressively ramp up their rebuild. His time is limited and he wants to win at least one more Super Bowl.

Can the Raiders promise to quickly build a winning team around him in a division with the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs? It's a dicey proposition.

The smart money still is on Brady returning to New England, but he and the Patriots clearly aren't seeing eye-to-eye as free agency draws near.