NFL Draft analysis: defensive ends — Arden Key

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DENTON, Texas (KNTU) To kick off my analysis of NFL 2018 Draft candidates, I focus on: Arden Key, Edge, LSU — 6’6″ / 265 lbs — Junior #49.

  • Who is He?

Simply put, Key is a large man who’s good at football. If that were the only criterion, Key would be much higher on my list of top edge talents in this year’s draft.

An Atlanta native, Key’s career at Louisiana State University has been filled with highs, lows, and an element of mystery that will likely follow him through the draft process. After breaking the single-season school record for sacks in 2016 with 12, Key began his junior year by taking a leave of absence in the spring for what was called “personal reasons.” He then had shoulder surgery in late May 2017 and missed all of LSU’s summer workouts.

He followed up his sophomore campaign by starting his junior season on the bench, missing the first two games while continuing his recovery from that surgery. Struggling to regain form, Key broke his pinky finger in October and played through it until a knee injury ended his season in November.

Despite being unhealthy most of the 2017 season, Key still showed flashes of his freshman and sophomore self, finishing with 33 tackles — 5.5 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks — along with eight QB pressures, and a forced fumble.

Off the field questions have historically hurt otherwise elite prospects. Players like Reuben Foster, who was a consensus top 10 2017 talent, but his draft standing fell after an altercation with a scout during the combine.

Compared to that, Key’s issues are mild; however, he will need to have the right answers when meeting with teams to show that he hasn’t lost a step at the combine in April.

  • Positives

There’s a lot to like about Key. He doesn’t leave much to be desired with his massive frame and speed off the edge. I see him as one of the purest pass rushers in the draft. He was asked to rush as an outside linebacker for the majority of his time at LSU, but at his size and weight, he seems better suited to play as a 4-3 defensive end in the NFL, rushing as a down lineman.

Key’s speed is one of his best traits. He’s long and eats up yardage extremely fast during his rushes. Here he records a pressure that eventually becomes a sack, but he’s clearly the first player that gets home. Key beats the tackle to his spot and gets past him before he can engage in a block.

Part of what makes Key one of the more polished pass rushers in this draft class is his arsenal of moves. Watching his tape, I noticed he’s able to string moves together in his attack: clubbing, ripping, dipping, even an occasional spin move. Most edges come out of college with just one or two moves, so it’s encouraging that Key already has a multitude in his toolkit that he uses confidently.

I think one of the things that makes Key worth the first round price tag is his ability to play the run game. Many pure pass rushers are forced to play in rotation due to their size, but Key rarely gets moved off his spot, even by linemen. In the clip above, he takes on a pulling guard and quickly gets off his block to make a tackle for a loss.

  • Negatives

As an outside linebacker at LSU, Key was often asked to drop into coverage — I really don’t think he had any business doing that.

Above, Key is responsible for a hook zone on the right side of the field. He gets caught flat-footed when the tight end enters his zone and Key is forced to flip his hips and carry the route vertically. He gets beat and doesn’t have the straight line speed to be that far downfield.

You can also see in the play above that his hips aren’t the most fluid, which is a necessary quality to have as a pass rusher. But his frame just doesn’t allow him to get very low. He doesn’t have the most bend to him, but he’s often able to compensate for it with speed and technique. It will be interesting to see how he’s able to deal with NFL tackles that can keep up with his speed.

  • Summary

Arden Key is a pure pass rusher who will likely be able to play as a three-down edge defender in a 4-3 scheme. If taken as an outside linebacker, he’ll need to work on his coverage skills or not be given any coverage responsibilities.

With his size, athleticism, and skill set, he’s likely be able to start right away at the next level, offering pressure off the edge and sound run defense. He’ll just need to stay healthy.

I don’t see Key falling out of the first round. Even if he doesn’t test very well at the combine, there aren’t many edges that are as polished as Key in this class, and that will be appealing to teams looking to improve their pass rush.

  • Relevance to the Dallas Cowboys

Key will likely be drafted as a late first rounder. He’ll probably still be available when the Cowboys are on the clock at 19th overall, but Dallas has much bigger questions to answer with that pick. Taking Key at 19 would mark the second time the Cowboys have taken a defensive end in as many years.

I would rather see the Cowboys address wide receiver, defensive tackle, or linebacker in the first round and add depth on the edge in later rounds.

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