ALAMEDA – This Raiders season has run afoul, without much to play for despite having a half season left. A huge sect of the roster won't be around in future seasons, leaving no cause to invest in their progress over the season's second class.
One class, however, is an exception. Jon Gruden's first draft class is held in high esteem around here, and many selections are playing significant snaps. Gruden met with the group and requested more from each player, demanding each guy grow up fast.
"At the halfway point you make some key points to them with all the coaches in there so we're all on the same page," Gruden said. "I want them to be a united group that's learning from the 1-7 start how hard this business is and how painful it is on all of us. I want them to be a part of solution and the big picture, not only this week, but for years to come."
These guys are part of Gruden's long-term vision, so we're going to follow their progress throughout the season and focus on one rookie each week in our rookie spotlight.
This week it's shining on…
Position: Edge rusher
Draft slot: Third round (No. 87)
School: Louisiana State
Stats: 15 tackles, 1 sack, 6 QB hits, 9 hurries in 8 games (2 starts)
Raw tools: Key has tremendous bend and athleticism coming off the edge, with a wide range of pass-rush moves at his disposal. Not known as a great run defender at this stage and, at 238 pounds, he's a little light to be setting the edge on a regular basis.
Early returns: Key doesn't have as many sacks as he'd like through the season's first half. He has been close to the quarterback several times with but one sack to show for it. He wants higher numbers, but sacks are often slow in coming for rookies.
"You're not going to turn the TV on and see that he has eight sacks (already)," defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. "It's going to be a building process through it all."
Where Key has improved: The Raiders have played him more than expected on early downs, especially earlier in the year. He bit regularly on misdirection early in the year and the team suffered, but Key has improved in that area.
"His progress has come playing on first and second down," Guenther said. "That was something (new). When we drafted him, we envisioned him playing on third down but, with our situation, we'd had to play him more on first and second and he has done a pretty good job with that."
What's next: Key will be given every opportunity to grow during the season's second half. While new signings Jacquies Smith and Kony Ealy will chip into his playing time off the edge, confidence in the LSU product remains high that he can develop and evolve into a standout pass rusher. Key is always confident, and has seen gains since the season's start.
"I always go back to game No. 1," Key said. "That was the worst game I played since I've been playing football. I was doing a lot of thinking, and things of that sort. With each passing game, I'm operating more with instinct.
"I'm making better reads, and the game's starting to slow down the more and more I play."
Quotable: "I took a lot of things from him. One important was that, on Sundays, I just have to go out and be myself. Coaches will help throughout the week, but in games you have to play instinctive and do what you do. Believe in what you do, and do it 100 miles per hour." – Key on what he learned from now-departed mentor/fellow edge rusher Bruce Irvin