49ers edge rusher Arden Key made it onto our Winners section this week as he played a significant part in the defense’s dominance. Key’s on a one-year contract with a cap number just north of $1 million.
He has seven tackles for loss, six sacks, and 15 quarterback hits on the season. Key’s been a home run signing when you factor in his contract and compare it to his production.
On Monday, I asked head coach Kyle Shanahan, knowing Key will be an unrestricted free agent in a couple of months, how the 49ers evaluate Key’s season. Edge rushers who can win at 25 are rarely available in free agency. Key is in a new scheme, around better players, and that’s a part of the reason why he’s broken out this season.
Is Key a one-year wonder? Has he shown enough to the organization to prove this success can be sustained? Here’s Shanahan’s answer:
“Arden’s had some injuries, he’s been in a different scheme, but he’s battled through all year for us. We’ve really enjoyed the person, loved having him around as a guy. I think he’s gotten better as the year has gone and I think he’s done a decent job of taking care of his body this year.
So that’s always a risk with everybody looking into that stuff, but I’ve really enjoyed the year with Arden and I think he’s playing better football as it goes. And hopefully that’ll continue here over this week and hopefully into the playoffs because he’s been a big part of helping our defense get to where it’s at.”
Key has played well, but not to the level where he’s put his price tag out of reach for the 49ers this offseason.
The Niners can give Key another prove-it deal. They could also give him an incentive-laden deal. We’ve talked about the potential saving on Dee Ford’s contract, but Samson Ebukam is another player to keep an eye on.
If San Francisco releases Ebukam before June 1, they save $6.5 million in cap space with only $1.75 million in dead money. Have we seen enough from Ebukam to warrant an $8.25 million cap number next season? I lean no, even knowing that he’s improved as the season has gone along.
Ebukam is only 26, but Key has been more productive. Key has a higher sack, hurry, QB hit, and pressure percentage than Ebukam on the season. They play different roles, and both are critical to the Niners' success. However, Key has made more of an impact.
I’m fascinated to see how the 49ers handle their defensive line this offseason. I wouldn’t fault the 49ers for keeping or moving on from Ebukam. If they do go in a different direction, it’s because they feel like they can get more bang for their buck. As for Key, I can’t envision a scenario that plays out where letting him walk is best for the team.