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Front Page - Friday, August 11, 2023

Titans free agent signee LB Key adds leadership, levity

What’s needed most is consistent play

“I’m happy he’s with us,” Jeffrey Simmons says of Key. “He brings a lot to our team. He brings the energy and athleticism and his play style to our defense.” - Photo by George Walker IV | AP

Arden Key enjoys being the life of the party. The veteran linebacker, who signed with the Titans as a free agent this spring, figures to have the role that Bud Dupree had the past couple of years.

What will be interesting to watch with Key – other than his pass-rushing skills – is the fun and energy he seems to bring to every situation.

In a Titans locker room where it sometimes feels like players are coached to say nothing interesting to the media, the former LSU star is certainly a breath of fresh air – tossing out quotable sound bytes in nearly every interview and doing more than his share of trash talking on the practice field.

“That’s just me,” Key says of being so loud and jovial. “I think it’s an Atlanta thing because I don’t know any quiet person from Atlanta. I think that’s just in our nature. That’s the way we were born.”

Key’s personality is fun, his demeanor magnetic, but until this offseason – when he signed a three-year deal with the Titans – the outside linebacker had been through three stops in five seasons in the NFL.

Key was a 2018 third-round pick of the then-Oakland Raiders, and was somewhat miscast as a defensive end in their 4-3 scheme. The Raiders dumped him on waivers a couple of weeks before the 2021 NFL draft after he recorded just three sacks in three seasons, including none in his final year there.

He admits now that maybe that his joking personality might have been taken the wrong way early in his career, especially considering his lack of production with the Raiders.

“Early on in my career, I wasn’t producing enough on the field, (they would think) he’s a playful guy, he’s a goofy guy, that’s going to be the perception,” Key says. “It could have been wrong, but that was the perception then. (But I) just work and continue to be me and just knowing when and when not to do it.”

A few days later being let go by the now-Las Vegas Raiders, Key was signed by the San Francisco 49ers, where future Titans general manager Ran Carthon happened to notice his play. Switching to outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme seemed just the fix for Key, who had 6.5 sacks as a third-down pass rushing specialist.

His loose and carefree attitude remained as his production rose. But it didn’t turn into the long-term deal Key coveted.

So he was on the move again, taking a one-year “prove it” contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars. After getting 4.5 sacks for the Jags, Key thought he had earned a long-term deal in Jacksonville. But when it didn’t, the Jaguars’ top AFC South rival came calling. With the front office now under Carthon’s direction, the Titans swooped in and signed him.

“With San Fran, John Lynch told me they just didn’t have the money for me,” Key recalled. “In Jacksonville, I don’t know what happened there, but the opportunity here was presented and I capitalized on it. Just knowing some of the guys here and Mike Vrabel – I came here on a visit pre-draft – so we had some communication there.”

Besides personality, perhaps the other reason Key took so long to land a multiyear deal is that he had been primarily just a third-down pass rush specialist in both San Francisco and Jacksonville. While that can earn you money, longer term security is often found in being an every-down player – something Key will get the chance to do in Tennessee.

“Previously, I only played third down. But I think people around the league know what I can do. I think it’s just now having the opportunity to play 800 snaps a year,” he says.

Key has become a favorite with his teammates. Defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons, one of the leaders of the team and the defense, says Key’s bubbly personality is a nice addition.

“I think that’s the best part about Arden. He’s going to be himself, and that’s what you want as a teammate, someone who comes out when it’s time to hit the field, he’s going to come out and have that energy,” Simmons says.

Wherever Key is, laughter and having fun are sure to be close by, says Simmons, who in his weekly recalled a story from earlier that day in training camp where Key just made Simmons shake his head and laugh.

“I was in there getting stretched, and he jumped in the cold tub and said something like, ‘Wake the (expletive) up,’” Simmons says. “He told himself to wake up. It’s things like that. He’s just being himself and that’s what makes him who he is.

“I’m happy he’s with us. He brings a lot to our team. He brings the energy and athleticism and his play style to our defense. He fits in right with us. I’m excited to see when it’s time to put the pads on what more he can do.”

Key says he would also like to hear himself described as a leader.

“Last year, I kind of stepped into a role of being a leader,” Key says. “Years before that, I wasn’t ready to be a leader. A lot of guys gravitate toward me. That’s always been me throughout life. I feel like I’m ready and mature enough to step into that leader role, and I have stepped into it.”

It’s that maturity that Key says has made the difference in him now than he was as a younger player in the league.

“When I first came in, I wasn’t the same guy I am now. I’ve always been this fun, happy-going guy,” Key says. “It’s just that early, it was the work (that wasn’t getting done). It was knowing when and when not to play and actually put in the work.”

He is quite thankful for the maturation process he has been through.

“It just wasn’t my time. God has a funny way of timing, a funny way of doing His thing. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready mentally to be where I’m at now. I’ve grown. I’ve matured enough to be where I’m at now and capitalize on this opportunity,” Key says.

So while Key makes sure he knows not to cross the line between fun and getting his work done, exactly how does that play with Titans coach Mike Vrabel, who has very little time for nonsense during practice and meetings. After all, he learned as a player from Bill Cowher and Bill Belichick.

“Everybody’s got a different personality, you know? I like that when guys have energy and can still talk and do their job. That’s the most important thing, is production and making sure that you’re handling your responsibility,” Vrabel says of Key. “If along the way you got a personality and you got some energy, I’m all for it. But, making sure that doesn’t get in the way of our ultimate job. So I’ve enjoyed coaching him since the day he got here. He’s put a lot of work in. He’s excited for the opportunity and we’re excited to have him.”