NFL teams would like to keep as many players as possible from leaving in free agency but salary cap rules make it nearly impossible. In particular, the Jacksonville Jaguars lost right tackle Jawaan Taylor and defensive end Arden Key this offseason because other clubs made them better offers. Although filling the void left by Taylor will be one of the Jags' top priorities in the 2023 NFL Draft, Brad Spielberger of Pro Football Focus thinks Key is the biggest lost of the two.
Spielberger recently talked about every NFL team's biggest loss in free agency and argues that Key's departure looms larger than Taylor's because 2021 second-round pick Walker Little is ready to step in at right tackle. Spielberg cites Key's 14.6 percent pressure rate to highlight his impact on the Jaguars' pass rush rotation. Moreover, he notes that Key was clutch near the end of the 2022 season.
"Key had a career year playing on a one-year, $4 million flier, with his 81.3 overall grade his top mark for a season by more than 10 grading points. Over the past two seasons, Key recorded 80 quarterback pressures on 546 pass-rush reps, with the 14.6 % pressure rate good for 17th among edge defenders over the span. Key generated at least three quarterback pressures in each of Jacksonville's final five regular-season games and both playoff games, repeatedly stepping up big when it was do-or-die time. "
Key's career arc proves that some players need more time than others to find their footing in the NFL. A third-round pick by the Las Vegas Raiders, the former LSU Tiger was a non-factor in his first three seasons, which led to his release in 2021. He promptly latched onto the San Francisco 49ers and went on to have a career year despite the fact that he didn't log a single start. He then joined the Jags last offseason and showed that his lone season in the Bay Area wasn't a fluke.
However, Key was one of several defenders that made plays. Nobody will deny he played an important role but players such as safety Rayshawn Jenkins, cornerback Tyson Campbell and linebacker Foyesade Oluokun might have had a bigger impact than him in Jacksonville last year.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are equipped to replace Arden Key's production
Key was a valuable contributor but not a franchise player. While it's true that he helped to turn things around, he was just a piece of the puzzle. As a matter of fact, he's shown throughout his career that he's more productive as a part of a rotation. Back in his rookie campaign, he appeared in all 16 games with 10 starts but only manage to register one sack, 30 total tackles, and four tackles for a loss. Conversely, he's suited up for 32 contests with three starts over the last two years and his production has been much better (11.5 sacks, 49 total tackles, and 32 tackles for a loss).
Granted, Key has come a long way since his Silver and Black days but he showed over the last two years that he's better suited for a rotational role rather than a feature one. Regardless of his playing time, he wanted to maximize his value and the Titans were willing to pay him.
On the other hand, the sky isn't falling in Jacksonville. The Jaguars' brass will need to replace him but they could target an edge rusher in the first three rounds of the draft. On top of that, outside linebacker Travon Walker should make strides in Year 2, which would help lessen Key's departure.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are coming off a successful season and they would have probably wanted to keep the core that made it possible together. However, they couldn't retain Key and they'll now have to face him twice a year and he'll have the chance to prove that letting him walk was a mistake.