Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

DL Arden Key says coming to 49ers has exceeded expectations: ‘I love it here’

Jan 13, 2022 at 5:21 PM--

It's not impossible to imagine a situation where the 49ers and defensive lineman Arden Key are unable to hammer out a new contract this offseason, but it won't be because Key isn't happy being a part of the organization.

Key signed with the 49ers on a one-year deal in April after being let go by the Raiders, for whom he played three seasons after being selected as a third-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Key has voiced displeasure in the past about his time with the Raiders after posting just 37 tackles and three sacks over those three seasons, but he's had the exact opposite reaction about his time with the 49ers, which has seen him collect a career high 6.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hits as he's established himself as a surprise inside pass rushing threat.

"It's exceeded my expectations," Key told reporters after practice on Thursday. "What I would say—I'd say I expected everything, but it's different when you expect it and then when you're actually living in the reality of it."

Key's ability to rush the passer comes as no surprise; after all, his potential in that area was what led him to be viewed as a potential high first-round draft pick early in his college career at LSU. But it was thought that Key's success in the NFL would come on the edge instead of on the inside, which is where he's been making a lot of noise for the 49ers in recent weeks. Key didn't think this is how things would wind up in the NFL, but he certainly doesn't seem to mind.

"I didn't expect it coming out of college," Key said. "Definitely didn't. Not surprised (at the success), because it was an easy transition. I played all across the line since the start of my football career. I played a little bit inside during college, so I had a little bit of experience starting there. Then every year, my rookie year, I played inside a little bit. My sophomore year I played a lot—I played more than my rookie year inside. So ever since I've been in the league, I've been getting reps inside. This would be the most reps I've gotten inside, and I'm liking it. I'm loving it."

The 49ers coaches deserve credit for an assist for that one, in particular defensive line coach Kris Kocurek. Kocurek has a track record of getting high-end production out of his defensive linemen, and Key has become his latest success story.

"He just demands the best from you every day. He wants the best from everybody," Key said of Kocurek. "And that's from practice squad guys all the way up to the guy. And he wants the same for everybody—he wants everybody to be better, everybody to reach their full potential, and he's the same every day. That's what I respect about him."

Key's production will likely result in a significant raise coming his way this offseason, whether it comes from the 49ers or another team. It sounds like he'd love to stay with the 49ers, but as of now he's focusing on the task at hand, which is this Sunday's playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys.

"Man, I love it here," Key said. "I'm not thinking about contract talk. I'm not having no contract talk, nothing. Everything will be after the season. We're just here enjoying every moment right now.

"A lot of teams say we care about one another, we want to see everybody successful and everything like that, but we really mean it over here. It's really a brotherhood. And I don't want it to end. We don't want it to end. So we're talking it day by day, bringing it all in, and letting the chips fall where they may."

One would think the 49ers would like to work something out with Key in the months ahead as well. He's become an important piece of their defensive line, helping to form a core they might not want to break apart. More will be known as free agency draws closer in March, but the 49ers have to be pleased with the return they've gotten from Key to this point.

"He's put in the work to continue to get better and better as the year went on," defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said Thursday. "I think we found that niche putting him inside. He's been very effective inside. He's probably one of our most effective guys when it comes to rushing inside. So I'm very happy with Arden and what he's able to do. Watching him as a free agent, you saw what he could do inside as a rusher. I think with the group collectively, how they rush together, I think that's allowed Arden to garnish some success because of the other guys he has around him."

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