Position of Need

At the owners meeting back in March Sean Payton described one of the Saints must additions this year as being a pass rusher. He said the addition of Alex Okafor did not address that need and the Saints must do better affecting opposing quarterbacks in 2018 and beyond. Let’s face it, this position has been one Who Dat Nation has wanted to see addressed since Junior Galette was released. Cam Jordan has been a beast for the Saints, however the defense would benefit greatly from the addition of a dominant edge rusher opposite Cam.

The following are the thoughts of Ross McRobert published by Christy Chauvin.

Elite Traits

Key has elite traits that could lead to him developing into a top pass rusher in the NFL. Below is an extract from Rob Rang of nfldraftscout.com’s scouting report on Arden Key. I have compared this to a few different scouting reports, and they are unanimous with what Key is good at.

“Key possesses an ideal frame for a modern day edge rusher with broad shoulders, vines for limbs and well distributed musculature, including a powerful lower half. His greatest asset is an explosive burst off the ball, one aided by very good snap anticipation, which allows him to often cross the face of offensive tackles and get them stumbling backward in an attempt to slow him. Key shows very good flexibility and balance to dip his shoulder under the reach of tackles and quickly flatten out to scrape the edge closely to pursue the quarterback and leaving opposing blockers very little time to recover. Key possesses very good closing speed to stalk unsuspecting ball-carriers from behind, showing not only the acceleration to catch up but spatial awareness, agility and balance to avoid cut blocks from backs or others looking to chip him. Though his frame does not suggest great strength, Key is very effective in converting his speed to power, effectively bull-rushing much larger men because he gets them off-balance, provides a strong initial pop and bends his knees, often winning the leverage battle. He fights to keep outside containment against the run and is stronger than he looks, showing good hand strength and aggression to shed blockers at the point of attack. Key is a generally reliable wrap-up tackler who closes with force, generating some impressive hits and showing the ability to knock the ball out (four forced fumbles over his career). Because he is so effective rushing the quarterback, Key was only occasionally asked to drop into coverage at LSU but on those few occasions, he looked surprisingly nimble dropping back (see Auburn, 2017), showing light feet and loose hips to easily change direction and accelerate, presenting all sorts of possibilities for a creative defensive coordinator.”

Arden Key

Arden Key

College Production

As you can see from the table below, Key was productive at LSU. His 2016 season was incredible from a true Sophomore. He broke the school single season sack record and he dominated in the SEC, the toughest division in College football. Key’s off the field issues led to the drop in production in 2017 which has affected his draft stock.

 

Saints interest

The Saints appear to have legitmate interest in Key. They met with him at the NFL Scouting Combine, they had dinner with him prior to LSU pro day, they attended the pro day and met with Key there and have arranged for Key to visit the Saints facility and scheduled a private workout with him in Baton Rouge. The front office and coaching staff would not be investing as much time and resources into meeting with a player if they didn’t view him as a potential fit. By the time draft night rolls round the Saints will have met with Key a minimum of 5 times.

Jeff Ireland Effect

When Jeff Ireland was the General Manager of the Miami Dolphins he drafted Dion Jordan out of Oregon. Ireland fell in love with Jordan because of his size and athleticism led him to view Jordan as being the next Jason Taylor. The future Hall of Famer who Ireland signed twice in his span at the Dolphins in 2009 and 2011. Jordan didn’t pan out for the Dolphins but is starting to have success in Seattle where he resigned after having a productive season last year. Ireland might view Key in a similar light as he did Jordan. He might feel the Saints are better equipped to develop Key with the coaching and leadership that obviously weren’t present in Miami.

Pro Comparison

Rob Rang compared Arden Key to Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas of the Kansas City Chiefs. “An explosive first step and cat-like quickness to avoid blockers off the edge are the elite traits which helped the late Thomas rack up an NFL-best 116.5 sacks during the 1990s, as well as NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 1989. A similar skill-set and immediate impact potential could earn Key top five consideration, just like Thomas (No. 4 overall). With an explosive initial get-off, long arms to keep offensive tackles’ hands off him and the core flexibility to dip and flatten in one fluid motion, Key boasts the most intriguing skill-set of any edge defender in the 2018 NFL draft.”

Red Flags

Key took a leave of absence in February last year for personal reasons. In interviews with teams in the pre-draft process he has said to have been honest and upfront with teams over the reasons for the absence. Pro Football Weekly are reporting that teams they reached out have said Key entered rehab for marijuana use. Key reportedly was suspended from LSU for failing a drug test. If Key has matured and moved on from this part of his life then everybody deserves a second chance. I have seen comparison to Randy Gregory as a result of these reports which seems a bit harsh. Gergory was suspended multiple times for drug use at college. Key seems to have taken a step to solve the issue before it became a bigger problem.

When Key returned to the team after his leave of absence he had underwent surgery on his rotator cuff which he had injured and played through the previous season. He later went on to miss the last two games of the season and Bowl game due to having surgery on his pinkie finger. When asked by the media at the Combine about his injuries, Key said he is over them and has no issues anymore.

The bigger issues teams have to work through appears to be the outside influences in Key’s life during this time. The LSU medical staff were apparently happy with Key’s shoulder and believed he didn’t require surgery. However members of Key’s “support team” advised him to get the surgery which caught LSU off guard when he returned to the team post-surgery. NFL teams will need to know they can trust Key when he turns pro. To listen to and trust the word of team doctors, coaches etc.

When Key arrived at summer practices in June 25 pounds heavier than expected, he weighed 278lbs, raising questions about how seriously he took conditioning and his preparation for his junior season. Key’s father said in an interview that his son didn’t cope very well with the stardom and expectation that came with his dominant sophomore season.

Arden Key

Arden Key

Poor 40 yard dash time

One of the big question marks against Arden Key was the 40 yard dash time he recorded at the LSU pro day. 4.89 and 4.91 were the official times clocked for Key at 238 lbs. Those who do not favour Key will point to these numbers as being worrying due to his weight etc. Those who favour Key and are banging the table will point to the Terrell Suggs comparison as player who ran 4.90 at their pro day but still went on to be a productive pass rusher in the NFL. While the 40 yard dash time raised eyebrows I wouldn’t say it’s the end of the world for Key. He will not be asked to run 40 yards down the field in a straight line much in the NFL. Mike Mayock of NFL.com said more importantly he looked explosive and quick in the pass rush and positional drills. While I couldn’t find a timed 10 yard split for Key’s 40 yard dash, personally timing it on a stopwatch watching the video online I had him clocked at 1.64 for the 10 yard split which is on par with the top defensive ends in this draft class.

Poor 2017 performance

As discussed above, Key’s production in 2017 dropped due to the off-field issues. After missing all of spring workouts and conditioning in the summer, Key showed up for the start of the season rehabbing from shoulder surgery and overweight at 278 lbs. Key missed the first two games and once back on the field was nowhere near the level of conditioning that he was at in 2016. He has admitted himself he was not at 100% at any point in 2017. While everything that led up to this has to be investigated and explained, Key’s drop in production follows the trend of so many top edge players in the past, Jadeveon Clowney, Myles Garrett and Harold Landry to name a few. Many in the media were willing to write off these previous drops in production due to playing through injury and missing time due to injuries etc, should Key not be given a similar pass.

Weaknesses 

While Key has elite traits to his game he also has areas of weaknesses that he will have to improve on to reach his undeniable potential. Below is an extract from Rob Rang of nfldraftscout.com’s scouting report.

“Due to underrated strength and excellent knee bend, Key is more powerful than his frame suggests but he is too often blown off the ball when opponents are able to latch on, especially on double-teams, which too often resulted in his literally being knocked to the turf. Key is a threat as a pass rusher but shows limited awareness of passing lanes when unable to get home, tipping just four passes over his career (including none in 2017) and never intercepting a pass … Too often is the nail rather than the hammer as a hitter, getting dragged by smaller ball-carriers yards downfield on occasion. Can be too aggressive on read-option plays, leaving the defense vulnerable when he guesses wrong.”

Arden Key

Arden Key

What I think the Saints will do

The way I look at it is the Arden Key of 2017 on the field was not the player Key really is or has the potential to be. The Arden Key of 2016 on the field is the real Arden Key. You can’t coach the strengths of his game, however you can coach the weaknesses out of his game. Ryan Nielsen would work wonders with Key. He would light a fire under him and keep him motivated along with the other leaders on the team. Once he has spent a full year or so in an NFL strength and conditioning programme and has the proper coaching and time dedicated to watching film I believe he can get better at playing the run and develop into a more rounded player, but it the upside as a pass rusher that has me so intrigued by him. He has the traits to become an elite double-digit sack artist in the NFL. As I mentioned above by the time the draft comes around the Saints will have met with Key five times. You don’t invest that amount of time if you do not value the player and value him highly. I think the Saints are trying to get to a point where they are comfortable to take Key in the first round. If a Harold Landry doesn’t drop in the draft and is within striking distance of the Saints I think they will take Key at 27. If they don’t I believe they will trade up aggressively into the second round to land him similarly to the way they moved up for Kamara. Payton said that every year there are only a few guys available that can rusher the passer, you just have to hope one of them is available when you pick. The Saints are certainly doing their due diligence on Key. Key said at his pro day that he showed sophomore Arden Key was back. That would be a great thing for the Saints, and would be great value at 27, as long as his junior year and everything that happened in the spring leading up to it was a one off and doesn’t happen again.