Leading up to the 2017 college football season, the CFB Film Room Scouting Dept. is putting together a summer scouting series. We’re focusing on the top draft-eligible prospects entering the 2017 season and will be reviewing their strengths and weaknesses from an NFL scouting perspective.
With Myles Garrett now in the NFL, the title of the nation’s most dominant pass-rusher gets passed to a fellow SEC lineman: LSU’s Arden Key.
Through his first two seasons with the Tigers, Key has racked up an impressive 87 quarterback pressures, including 16 sacks. And based on his improvement through his first two years, Key may be capable of even more impressive dominance in 2017.
Key made a splash as a freshman, generating 43 total pressures but only 10 of those pressures (23.3 percent) were sacks or hits. During his sophomore year, Key showed remarkable improvement in his ability to finish plays, converting 23 of his 44 pressures in sacks and hits (52.3%).
Having already performed at an elite level in 2016, expectations for Key’s junior year are obviously high.
As we prepare for the start of the 2017 season, here’s a closer look at some of Key’s elite traits, as well as a few areas in which he could improve.
Can he win the physical battles?
If there is an area of concern in Key’s pass rush, it’s due to his tendency to rely heavily on his athleticism. Even in the SEC, Key stands out as an athletic freak and has a decided advantage over almost all offensive linemen. As a result, he tends to avoid engaging with linemen and attempts to set them up with his footwork rather than battling with has hands.
Here’s an example of Key using his footwork as his primary pass-rush move against Alabama:
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach. And even on this play it appears as though Key would have pressured Jalen Hurts had he held the ball a moment longer.
I mention this as a potential weakness only as it related to his development at the NFL level.
Obviously Key will face far more athletes capable of mirroring his footwork in the NFL and forcing him to engage. And since Key relies so heavily on his athleticism in college, he may not fully be prepared for the physical battles of the NFL.
Key’s modest physical strength also shows up against the run.
When working in space, Key is a dangerous run defender due to his elite range for a defensive lineman. He can make plays in pursuit that many athletes his size simply can’t get to. However, if an offensive lineman is able to get into his chest immediately, Key is down for the count.
Here’s an example of Cam Robinson, 2nd round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars, flattening Key in the run game:
Entering his junior year, Key has already proven he has the raw athleticism to be a force in the NFL. But he can further improve his draft stock if he demonstrates the ability to win the physical battles in the trenches.
Earlier this offseason, Key appeared to indicate in a tweet that he was up to 255 pounds—he had been listed at 238. If he does play the 2017 season around 250 pounds, we could see dramatic improvements from him in this area.
Late last season Arden Key was suspended from the team for one game due to a violation of team rules. Then in February he announced that he was stepping away from the team due to personal reasons (he has since returned).
It would be unfair to speculate on what issues Key may be dealing with, but it is fair to say NFL scouts will have a lot of questions.
Whatever he is dealing with off the field does not necessarily have to impact his draft stock. In fact, the way he handled it—quietly and with seemingly no negative impact or publicity that the team had to deal with—could actually help him. Assuming Key has dealt with whatever personal issues he was dealing with, NFL teams may be impressed by the maturity he showed to address these issues.
Key’s ability as an explosive pass-rusher makes him an obvious candidate to be among the first defensive prospects off the board in the 2018 draft. Even with minimal development this season, Key should be a first-round selection next April.
If he does show improved strength, however, the sky is the limit for Key. With the athleticism to win on the edge and the strength to be an improved force against the run, Key could potentially emerge as the best all-around prospect in this draft class.