Rookie Watch: Can Arden Key Help Fill a Khalil Mack-Sized Hole?

The Oakland Raiders traded arguably the best defensive player in the league in Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears. The Raiders are hoping that defensive end Arden Key can help fill the hole left behind.

With defensive ends Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin, the Oakland Raiders did not have an immediate need at edge rusher entering the 2018 offseason. O how things change. Mack skipped all OTAs and mandatory minicamp over his contract. His holdout continued through the entirety of training camp as well. The Raiders, deciding to move on, traded Mack to the Chicago Bears.

The trade of Mack leaves a huge hole on the Raiders defense. The last three seasons, Mack has averaged 76 tackles and just over 12 sacks. Not only is he one of the best edge rushers in the league, he can also stop the run.

Irvin is a good pass rusher in his own right. He has averaged just over six sacks per season and 46 tackles (without his rookie season) over his six-year career. However, Irvin will not be able to supply the pass rush by himself nor pick up Mack’s role. Irvin and the Raiders line will need help. Though they did not necessarily need the help entering the draft, rookie defensive tackle Maurice Hurst and rookie defensive end Arden Key have become extremely important to the Raiders defense.


Key had an up and down career at LSU. In his three seasons, Key accumulated 20 sacks, 130 tackles, 24.5 tackles for loss, and three forced fumbles. Key’s sophomore season in 2016 was his breakout with 12 sacks, 55 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, three passes defended, and two forced fumbles. He was PFF’s second-highest graded returning edge defenders in college in 2016. Key also ranked 9th of 149 in PFF’s pass rush productivity in 2016.

2017 was a different story for Key. He mysteriously left the program after the 2017 season to take care of personal issues. Key returned to the team several months later, 40 pounds heavier than his playing weight and having had rotator cuff surgery. This surgery forced him to miss the first few games of the season. The weight gain affected his play. He only accrued four sacks, 51 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and one forced fumble in eight games.

It came out in his combine interviews that Key left the program to enter rehab for Marijuana, according to LSU. Key also sought out medical advice outside of the LSU team doctor’s, which lead him to shoulder surgery. The team doctor’s felt surgery was unnecessary. This raised red flags with teams in the combine interview process. Thus, Key, a first-round talent, dropped on draft boards. 

NFL Offseason

The Raiders selected Key in the third round of the 2018 NFL draft. The first sign that Key and the Raiders are taking things seriously is that Irvin took Key under his wing and Key is hanging on Irvin’s every word.

Key made an impression on day 1 of minicamp, blowing by the left tackle to pressure quarterback Derek Carr. At the end of minicamp, Key received high praise from offensive line coach Tom Cable and head coach John Gruden. Key was drawing comparisons to another freak of nature pass rusher, former Raider Aldon Smith.

Key built upon momentum coming out of minicamp, showing his pass rushing skills in pads. Throughout the first half of training camp, Key demonstrated the abilities he showed in 2016, speed, instincts, bend, and a myriad of pass rush moves. He was even beating Pro Bowl offensive lineman early on in camp. Gruden continued to praise Key.

NFL Preseason Game Action

Key was held out of the Raiders first preseason game with an ankle injury. In the Raiders second preseason game, Arden was eased into action, only playing nine snaps as a third-down specialist. In the Raiders third preseason game, Arden made his presence felt. After putting pressure on the quarterback a few plays earlier, Arden recorded his first NFL sack.

NFL Regular Season Game Action

After Mack was traded, many expected Key to take over the starting role. Instead, Tank Carradine was designated as the starter across from Irvin. Regardless, Key saw 51% of the defensive snaps against the Los Angeles Rams, often replacing Irvin. Key accrued three total tackles. Unfortunately, the Raiders defense as a whole struggled, and the pass rush only produced five total pressures. Key did lead the team with two pressures on 19 pass rushes.

Despite holding the Broncos to zero points in the first half of their week two game, the Raiders still struggled to rush the passer. Key was able to produce pressure in the fourth quarter twice, including drawing a holding penalty. Ultimately, Key ended up with two tackles, one for loss.


The Oakland Raiders have a huge hole after trading defensive end Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears. This is very evident in the Raiders first two games of the 2018 season, as they have not been able to produce a pass rush. The Raiders selected defensive end Arden Key in the third round of the 2018 NFL draft to help bolster their pass rush. Due to the Mack trade, Key has been tasked with helping to fill that hole. Though Key has shown why he was believed to have first-round talent in training camp and the preseason, he has not been able to fill that Mack role.

Key may be worth a stash in deeper leagues as he has the talent to be a top-tier pass rusher. Really, he is a someone to keep an eye on as he progress through his first NFL season.

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