NFL draft profile — No. 48: LSU DE-LB Arden Key

Streaky pass rusher has elite talent but must answer questions after down 2017 season

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LSU pass rusher Arden Key looked like a top-10 pick after a banner 2016 season but took a step back as a junior. (USA Today Sports)

Each day leading up to the 2018 NFL draft, I’ll break down one of my top 50 prospects. In some cases, we had to make tough omissions because of poor injuries, combine showings or incomplete information. For more complete scouting reports on all the prospects, check out the Pro Football Weekly 2018 Draft Guide, which is available for order now.

48. LSU LB-DE Arden Key
6-foot-5, 238 pounds

Key stat: Set the LSU single-season sack record in 2016 with 12, and his 21 career sacks tied Gabe Northern for third all time in LSU history.

The skinny: Elite prep arrived in Baton Rouge with a lot of fanfare, and he delivered early by starting nine (of 12) games as a true freshman, recording five sacks. Key cranked it up a notch further as a sophomore in 2016, earning second-team All-SEC with 12 sacks, 14.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. This put him in a position to be viewed as a possible top-10 selection for the draft after it was assumed he’d declare early in 2018.

But his career went a bit sideways prior to last season when he left the program briefly in the spring for personal reasons before returning in the summer prior to camp. Key turned in a solid junior season despite missing five games, totaling 5.5 tackles for loss and four sacks before opting out of the bowl game with knee and finger issues. Key declared early for the 2018 NFL draft and completed most of the drills at the NFL scouting combine.

Upside: Bendy edge rusher with outstanding length and good short-area quickness and burst. Broad-chested. Flexible with loose hips. Has nice get-off and can fly off the snap, even before some tackles are out of their stance. Lined up on both sides of the line, and also stood up in LB position at times. Showed the ability to drop into short zones effectively.

Has a knack for sniffing out the ball and can close fast. Can slip through cracks easily and penetrate. Can take down runners from behind. Able to dart inside on stunts and twists and create problems from slower guards and tackles. Works back well to the ball after being blocked upfield.

Pass-rush upside clearly evident in 2016 tape, especially in games against Wisconsin, Mississippi State and Auburn. Also helped contain and frustrate Lamar Jackson and Louisville in dominant bowl win — Key had two sacks, including a safety. Watch him run the horn from a wide-9 technique and beat two Wisconsin blockers in 2016 for the pressure on a near interception:

Downside: Lazy with technique at times. Not fundamentally sound. Motor runs hot and cold. Picks his spots and will disappear for stretches. Can tip his pass-rush moves and must develop better counters. Can get too high and pushed off his mark. Doesn’t have much of a bull rush. Inconsistent run defender who can struggle in the power game. Watch him get glued to a pulling guard’s block against Florida and fail to make the stop or force the run back inside:

NFL teams worried about Key’s reliability after he left LSU in spring, ballooned up to 280 pounds and struggled to come back to full strength after offseason shoulder surgery. Key said he returned too soon from injury because of his competitiveness, but some evaluators felt like he was playing safely with an eye on the NFL. Cranked up his late-season intensity in three-game span vs. Auburn, Ole Miss and Alabama before shutting it down. Opted out of the bowl game with two minor injuries.

Best-suited destination: Key would benefit from going to a team that has a strong locker room and a defined role for him to be worked in. Could begin his career as a designated pass rusher and be put into a weight program that could maximize his physical skills in Year 2. He has all the tools, but his inconsistency and step backward in 2017 are worrisome.

Teams such as the Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Rams, Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears are teams that could be intrigued by his upside.

Quotable: “Can you trust him? That’s what I kept coming back to. You tried to dig on his character and his makeup to figure out if he can be accountable. It’s hard to get a straight answer. The talent is there, but will he make the sacrifices? I don’t know. That doesn’t scream top-25 pick to me.” — AFC college scouting director

Player comp: Dion Jordan, who possesses fantastic ability but only started to display his skill in the NFL this past season after distractions derailed him

Expected draft range: Top-40 pick, but Round 1 no longer considered a sure thing

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