NAPA — As he squares off against first-round draft pick Kolton Miller almost daily in training camp, Oakland Raiders rookie defensive end Arden Key rarely uses the same move twice.
On one play, Key takes a jab-step inside then spins around to Miller’s outside shoulder and speeds past the big left tackle. A few moments later, Key bull-rushes his way between Miller and another offensive lineman with little resistance.
It’s not an indictment of Miller so much as it is a credit to Key, the Raiders’ third-round draft pick who has been one of the early stars in training camp.
“We love Key,” Oakland coach Jon Gruden said Monday. “We’ve liked Key ever since the draft process. We felt lucky to get him where we got him. There’s some things this kid can do that are very special. Hopefully, we get full strength someday at the defensive end position and we can show our true colors.”
Gruden was referring to defensive end Khalil Mack, who is entering the final year of his contract and is holding out for a new deal.
Mack, the 2016 defensive player of the year, has been the Raiders’ best pass-rusher for the past four seasons. In hopes of giving him some help up front, the team used three of it first six draft picks to acquire Key along with defensive tackles P.J. Hall (second round) and Maurice Hurst (fifth round).
Oakland also moved Bruce Irvin from outside linebacker to right defensive end, the same position as Key. The two men formed a close bond, with Irvin serving as a mentor to Key.
Irvin compares Key to Aldon Smith, the talented but troubled former Raiders linebacker who had 33 ½ sacks in his first two NFL seasons before off-field issues forced him out of the league.
Like Smith, Key wears jersey No. 99.
“He’s a really natural rusher,” Irvin said. “He reminds me a lot of the old 99 that was here. If he keeps his head on straight, which he will, he’s going to be a hell of a player and a hell of a player for the Raiders. Can’t wait to see what he’s going to do this year.”
Irvin is among a number of Oakland players and coaches who have repeatedly praised Key during camp.
The 22-year-old has tried to keep it all in perspective. Key buries his head in the playbook and has been pouring over film of other pass-rushers, trying to find new tricks to add to his arsenal of pass-rush moves.
“I look at a lot of pass-rushers to try to steal some of their moves and try them in one-on-one,” Key said. “If it works it works and if I like it, it’s going to stick with me.”
Getting around an offensive tackle, Key said, is much like a chess match.
“I always work on one move first and see if he beats it,” Key said. “If he beats that then I’m going to counter with something else. If he beats my counter move then I’ve got to counter with another counter.”
The Raiders have also had Key lining up in the three-technique over a guard, giving the defense more speed for the interior rush.