Written By Blake Hymel
While LSU fans saw something potentially special in his freshman year, Arden Key didn’t explode onto the national scene until he was a sophomore in 2016. He became a dynamic pass rusher, doubling his tackles-for-loss to 12.5 and breaking LSU’s single season sack record with 12. Almost everyone had him ranked top-10 in the 2018 draft, but that was before the 2017 season happened.
Key missed all of spring practice and the first 2 games of the 2017 season with a mystery issue. Rumors around Baton Rouge ranged from a drug problem, to a secret injury, to Key taking off the 2017 season to prepare for the draft. As Key rejoined the team 4 months later, his father gave a cryptic explanation about Arden’s time away, saying, “He lost himself, he had so much success early. All the pressures of being a student-athlete…It was all coming down on him.”
After returning to the team and having a subpar season, many see Key as a high risk/high reward player. Below, I’ll break down each of Key’s risks and rewards and how I see his NFL career unfolding.
On February 15th, 2017, Ed Orgeron announced that Arden Key was taking time away from football for “personal reasons.” He returned to the team in June, but didn’t see playing time until the Mississippi State game on September 23rd. The most troubling thing about his time away is that no one outside of the Key family knows exactly why it happened. His father offered a little clarity when Arden returned to the team, and seemed to allude to the fact that Arden didn’t acclimate to the superstar student-athlete role very well.
This is a problem that may get worse in the NFL. The pressure of playing and producing at the next level is more intense. When you add millions of dollars and dozens (maybe hundreds) of people that all want a piece, it’s clear to see why an NFL team may be concerned with Arden’s ability to handle that kind of lifestyle. The NFL will have much lower tolerance for a player taking time away than a college team does. If a team isn’t getting the results they’re paying for, he’ll be cut relatively quickly.
The bright side is that Arden may have used his time away effectively and learned how to deal with these pressures not only for college, but in anticipation of his future NFL career.
After staying healthy for his first two years at LSU, Arden was riddled with injuries during the 2017 season. When he returned to the team in June after his personal time off, it was announced that he had recently undergone shoulder surgery. This caused him to miss the first 2 games of the season.
Key then played 8 games before injuring his knee in the 1st quarter against Arkansas on November 11th. He played 2 more quarters before coming out of the game. This injury (combined with his finger injury) caused him to miss the last 3 games of the season, including the bowl game against Notre Dame.
A few weeks after injuring his knee against Arkansas, it was reported that Key injured his pinky finger against Auburn on October 14th. He played the last four games of his LSU career with a grotesque looking, crooked pinky finger taped to his ring finger. On November 27th, it was announced that he would undergo finger surgery.
All-in-all, Arden missed 5 games in 2017 due to 3 different injuries. Any team looking to draft Arden will need to investigate these injuries further to ensure they won’t hamper his long-term ability.
When Key returned from his leave of absence at the beginning of the season he weighed in at 270 pounds. His target weight was 255, which is 12 pounds heavier than the 238 pounds he played at during the 2016 season. The weight gain impacted his play greatly. The film shows a slower, more lethargic Key early in the 2017 season. In his first game back he recorded a half sack, and then didn’t record another sack until four games later. For a player that was averaging 1 sack per game in the previous season, it was obvious that he wasn’t in shape.
Even later in the season, when Arden lost a bit of weight, his motor still seemed low. He wasn’t fighting through blocks, or giving any extra effort at all. If he didn’t beat the tackle to the edge he took himself out of the play entirely. He wasn’t the same player from 2016, one who ran an inside stunt and got free to sack the quarterback to win the Mississippi State game.
During his Pro Day, he gave NFL scouts a glimmer of hope as he cut his weight back to 238. His 40 was still a disappointing 4.85, but his weight loss may relieve some worries about Arden’s ability to stay disciplined to an NFL meal and workout plan.
Arden Key is the definition of a clutch player. Out of his 21.5 career sacks at LSU, 7 came in the 4th quarter. One out of every three of his sacks came in the most important quarter of the game. Within those seven sacks, two secured wins for his team– one against Miss. State in 2016 and another versus Auburn in 2017. This indicates that he gets better as the game continues. When most offensive lineman are getting tired late in the game, Key is able to hold onto the intensity and take advantage of mental mistakes. Playmakers late in the game are something NFL scouts like to see. When the game is on the line, how do you perform? These stats indicate that Key will perform very well in those situations.
Key has great size for his position. He’s 6’6” and 238 pounds (will likely bulk up to 255 by the time he plays) and is very long. The most impressive thing about him is his ability to turn and dip his shoulder around the offensive tackle. He does it so naturally, it’s hard to believe he’s 6’6”. His ability to bend around the end reminds me of Jadeveon Clowney, who may be the best at that in the NFL.
Even though he didn’t do great at the Combine (and did worse at his Pro Day), it’s evident that Key’s fast enough to play in the NFL. He has incredible explosion off the snap and routinely makes it to the edge before the tackle can get into position. He also has no problems running down quarterbacks from behind.
Key will find the most success in the NFL as a pass rusher. Over Arden’s three-year career he averages 6.45 yards per sack. The average of the top 20 sack leaders in 2017 was a full two yards less, at 4.5 yards per sack.
But Key impacts the game with more than just sacks. He has 26.5 tackles for loss over his three years, which, in and of itself, isn’t very impressive, but those 26.5 tackles for loss average a 6 yard loss each time. To compare, Bradley Chubb averages 4.12 yards, Clelin Ferrell averages 4.8, and Marcus Davenport averaged 4.4 during their college careers. All three are expected to be taken in the 1st round of this year’s draft.
Arden Key poses a significant risk as a prospect. While he had multiple injuries last season, my biggest concern is the mental strain the NFL will put on him. He’s shown to be inconsistent in keeping his weight under control. I’m concerned that when he gets to the next level, the stress, expectations, and money will begin to cause him to break his diet and workout routine. Once out of shape his athletic ability will be hindered, and he’ll begin to see less and less playing time until he’s ultimately cut.
But that’s only one possible outcome. If Key can find the player he was in 2016, and bring that level of play to the NFL, he can become a long-time starter and playmaker for whichever team drafts him.
If I were a GM I would have no problem drafting Key and taking that risk, but not in the 1st round. I wouldn’t be able to reconcile his past issues with a 1st round contract. But if I had a mid-second round pick or later, I’d take the risk– his potential to be a game-changer is too high to ignore.