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Oakland Raiders defensive end Arden Key played 16 games and started in 10 last year. What does the coaching staff have planned for him in 2019?

Who’s going to play defensive end for the Oakland Raiders? That’s been a popular question since the team traded Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears last September. The answers have changed over the last eight months. Fortunately, team brass provided clarity on one side.

Without a doubt, Clelin Ferrell, the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft, will start. At 6-4, 264 pounds, the Clemson product is a prototypical 4-3 defensive end with long arms (34.125-inches) able to corral ball-carriers running toward the edge and uncanny strength to collapse the pocket. Of course, his draft placement indicates he’s an immediate starter.

Opposite Ferrell’s projected spot, there’s a wide-open competition. Arden Key played the most snaps at the position (644) last season. The Raiders selected Maxx Crosby in the fourth round and Quinton Bell, a wide receiver who converted to defensive end, in the seventh round. Team brass also signed veterans Josh Mauro and Benson Mayowa. Don’t rule out a trade or a late pickup to compete for a starting spot at defensive end. For now, we’ll focus on the players on the roster.
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said something that tipped off Key’s prospective role for the upcoming season. “Arden can play in the role we envisioned for him last draft,” Guenther said to The Athletic’s Vic Tafur.

It’s a straightforward answer that doesn’t require a lot of detective work. The Raiders selected Key in the third round of the 2018 draft with Mack and Bruce Irvin on the roster, which indicates a situational pass-rushing role or third pocket-pusher in the nickel package.

The Raiders traded Mack and released Irvin, which thrust Key into a larger role than anticipated last year. At 238 pounds, it’s a tough ask to expect him to handle all three downs. He logged 21 solo tackles, four resulting in a loss of yardage, and one sack during his rookie campaign. On many occasions, the LSU product just didn’t have the strength to barrel through 300-plus pound offensive linemen and drop his target.
According to Guenther, via Tafur, the team is working on Key’s power and bulk but to a certain extent.

“He’s probably right where we need him to be,” Guenther said. “We’re trying to put a little more muscle mass on him now, so he is in there lifting. We don’t want him to get too heavy. He got up to 270 at LSU and he looked like a slug, you know what I am saying.”

Don’t expect to see Key play with a hulk-like frame in the upcoming season. He’s probably going to take the field in the 245-250-pound range. More importantly, the focus will likely lean toward strength than actual size. A technically sound pass-rusher can reach the quarterback at 242 pounds if he’s able to get a jump off the line of scrimmage, use his hands and add combination moves to beat his assignments.

Key may not see an uptick in snap count; it’s possible he may be on the field for fewer plays compared to last season, but that doesn’t indicate a step backward. In Guenther’s last year with the Cincinnati Bengals, Carl Lawson played 477 snaps (41.62 percent of defensive snaps) but logged 8.5 sacks as a designated pass-rusher.

Key isn’t comparable in size to Lawson (6-2, 265 pounds), but Guenther obviously has a plan for the second-year defender; the initial strategy to optimize his pass-rushing ability. If that’s the case, we could see Mayowa open the season as the starter and eventually cede snaps to Crosby, who’s also in need of strength development according to general manager Mike Mayock.
“So he has some twitch,” Mayock said. “He has length, he has twitch. He has a great motor. What he doesn’t have yet is power. He doesn’t have strength yet, and he needs to develop that.”
Training camp performances can change the plans in place, but we shouldn’t exaggerate the starter designation in terms of production. A rotational player can provide significant impact, if not, more than a first-unit defender. During Lawson’s strong rookie campaign, he ranked second on the team in sacks and only started one game. Key’s probable specialist role could bode well for his sack production.