The 49ers were unable to settle their need for a primary pass rusher in free agency. The top two options set to be available, Ezekiel Ansah and Demarcus Lawrence, were both tagged before the 2018 league year began. San Francisco did what it could to address the edge position, re-upping Cassius Marsh and signing Jeremiah Attaochu. The team also has Utah product Pita Taumoepenu, a sixth-round pick from last year.
While they have depth, they do want assurance they have an alpha pass rusher for next season.
Assuming they’ll be out of range for consensus EDGE1 Bradley Chubb, they’ve been often linked to Boston College defensive end Harold Landry as a potential pick in Round 1. With good college production and the measurables to match, many have Landry as the second-best edge rusher in the draft. The 49ers would have to take him at No. 9 overall, or potentially in a slight trade back in the first.
But if Landry is not their plan on Day 1, then who might they look to add later?
One player John Lynch and his department might be interested in is LSU’s Arden Key. The 49ers are scheduled to hold a private workout with Key at the university in Baton Rouge. They also have a follow-up on the docket, as LSU’s single-season record holder for sacks is scheduled for an official pre-draft visit.
Key at a glance
Key's upside is as a pass rusher, and multiple things make him effective in that role. He is 6-foot-5 with 33 1/2 inch arms, and he wins with speed, dexterity and power. With the Tigers, he would attack head-on or work inside with power; or more often dip and bend around tackles, showcasing special athleticism off the edge in an NFL body.
He can rush from the upright position, or with his hand in the ground. Key can pass rush from the weak or strong side, and also take inside snaps as a down lineman. He's dropped back in coverage and has even taken reps in the nickel like a true outside linebacker.
There are inconsistencies in his game (he needs to get better against the run), but he can do it all. And the consensus seems to be if Key lands with the right team, he could be a game-changer, particularly in terms of what he offers in sack production.
The following plays are just from his off-kilter 2017 season, just to get an idea of his style and where he was at most recently. Right away, it's easy to see Key's ability to run the arc.
But he's not limited to the outside. Here against Auburn he spins to sell the outside rush, and cuts back inside where he has a clear path to take down the quarterback.
In the same game, Key shows explosiveness off the snap, and textbook punch and rip to beat the tackle and force the throw. Joey Bosa, who piled up 23 sacks over his first two seasons with the Chargers, wins similarly, as broken down by The Ringer.
He's quick, tough to engage and relentless in his pursuit of the quarterback.
Key, a unanimous four-star recruit out of high school who was once largely discussed as a top-15 talent after a dominant 2016 season, has continued to tumble in the eyes of scouts.
The big question around Key ahead of the draft is that he disappeared from the team leading up to his junior season, and then returned after ballooning up 278 pounds. Eric Edholm of Pro Football Weekly reported that during his time away Key had checked himself into rehab for marijuana. When he got back to LSU, he was briefly suspended for another failed drug test.
On top of that, there's the on-field questions. While he makes big plays and shows the ability to be a force, Key is viewed as a hot and cold player more than he is a consistent one.
There are also reports of a shoulder surgery that was deemed unsuccessful by LSU, though Key said at the combine that it doesn’t give him any problems now. And there are questions about his inner circle, which you can read more about in this thorough story from Edholm at PFW.
Key didn’t help himself much more at the Tigers’ pro day this past week. He ran 40s of 4.89 and 4.91, which would’ve made him the fifth-slowest of 19 edge rush prospects at the NFL Combine.
But here’s the thing—Key is 6-foot-5 and now back down to 238 pounds. He looked good in drills, according to NFL Network’s Mike Mayock, who was in attendance. And with his size, natural athleticism and wingspan, there’s still going to be a lot of interest from NFL teams. Are the 49ers going to want to be one of those clubs?
This would be a draft move that comes with high volatility. If it misses, and he doesn’t pan out or worse, it could set the team back. If Key is brought in, clicks in this environment and puts it all together, he could also wind up being the steal of the draft.
Now, the 49ers made a similar move last year with Reuben Foster, and at a higher price than is expected for Key. Few players had as many questions as Foster did, which is how a consensus top-3 player in terms of raw talent fell to the very end of the first round. Still, as we saw, if it wasn’t the 49ers, the Saints were ready to take him as well with the very next pick.
So don't be fooled into thinking teams aren't quietly looking to pounce on Key after Day 1.
Key's path is also not unlike NaVorro Bowman's, who had similar questions at Penn State when he received a year probation after admitting to using marijuana twice. He was already on probation before that for a fight. Bowman was a first-round talent that wound up falling to the third round. Fellow LSU alum Tyrann Mathieu was another first-round talent who fell to the third round, and followed through on a major transition.
Is Key just another common young person under the microscope because of his profession? Or are these flags legit concerns? These are the questions the 49ers need to have answered by late April.
Media courtesy USA Today Sports Images