A few months ago, Arden Key appeared ready to grab the attention of the NFL draft world. The junior was coming was off a 2016 season with 12 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss, and looked ready to establish himself as one of the top pass rushers of the 2018 class.
Instead, the LSU linebacker has just 1.5 sacks and two tackles for loss in five games after missing the first two games of the year with a shoulder injury.
But last week Key began to look like the pass rusher that many expected to see all along in 2017. With the game on the line against Auburn, the junior got a sack with three seconds left that secured a 27-23 victory for LSU.
If Key returns to form and finishes the season with the same pass rushing ferocity he showed in 2016, the LSU product could be one of the top draft picks in 2018. But his slow start also raises red flags, regardless of how he finishes the year.
A matchup against Ole Miss at 7:15 p.m. ET is a good chance for Key to announce his return to the group of hyped draft prospects and an opportunity for NFL fans to familiarize themselves with one of the more enigmatic prospects of the potential 2018 class.
Here are X reasons to keep a close eye on Key:
1. Weight loss may be the reason for a resurgence
This is both a reason to be optimistic and pessimistic about Key’s chances at being a productive NFL star. While he was listed at 238 pounds by LSU in 2016, coach Ed Orgeron said Key ballooned to 270 during the offseason.
He left the program early in the 2017 offseason due to personal reasons, but much of the weight gain had to do with a shoulder injury that kept him from practicing and conditioning. Key has lost about 20 pounds since returning to the practice field.
"Now you see a confident Arden Key going out there," Orgeron said earlier this week, via NOLA.com. "I think the conditioning and him losing 20 pounds made the difference."
That weight loss is encouraging because it suggests that the slow start for Key isn’t really indicative of the type of pass rusher he has the potential to become. However, it also raises questions.
"Any time you see a player balloon up like Arden Key has, it's a big concern,” an NFL scout told NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein in October. “Whether you are dealing with injuries or not, there are certain conditioning and nutrition standards you need to be following."
How much of a concern it is will be a consistent topic of conversation surrounding Key when he leaves LSU.
2. Key’s talent will make some team roll the dice
It only takes one NFL team to be sold on a player, and Key shouldn’t have much trouble finding one. Yes, his weight gain and slow start to 2017 raises concerns, but his elite ability will make him hard to pass on.
“Key has the ideal build for an edge rusher,” NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah wrote in the summer. “He's 6-foot-6 and has exceptionally long arms. He uses his length to keep opponents off of his chest and has an array of moves to create pressures/sacks. Key flashes an explosive get off and can bend the loop at the top of his rush.”
Basically, he’s a pass rushing dream come true.
Former Falcons defensive end Chuck Smith even went so far as to say that 2017 No. 1 pick Myles Garrett “is not on [Key’s] level” when it comes to rushing the passer and that the LSU linebacker should be the No. 1 pick.
That praise may be too high, but it is a reflection of the kind of hype that surrounded Key prior to the 2017 season and why it’d be entirely unsurprising if he makes an NFL team in need of sacks fall in love.
3. Ole Miss provides an interesting test
So why tune in this week, in particular? For one, it’s a good primetime matchup on the road that brings with it a lot of spotlight.
But also, the Ole Miss offensive line is an improved, veteran unit that has been waiting for this moment.
"He's a great pass rusher, definitely going to play at the next level," Ole Miss left tackle Greg Little said of Key, via the Clarion-Ledger. "His speed is unreal. Me and Marquis (Haynes) have been doing a little extra at practice to help me with the speed. I think Arden Key is going to be the fastest I've faced all year."
It wasn’t the smoothest start to the year for Ole Miss up front, but the team’s offensive line played very well in a 57-35 win over Vanderbilt and enters Saturday night with a lot to prove against Key and the LSU pass rushers.
That makes Saturday a good chance for NFL fans to take a close look at the slimmed down version of Key.