LSU’s Arden Key, a projected top-5 pick in 2018 NFL Draft, returns to program

LSU's Arden Key returned to Baton Rouge on Monday. He's expected to be a top-5 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

One of the 2018 NFL Draft’s top prospects, and maybe the best non-quarterback available, is LSU pass rusher Arden Key. At this point in the evaluation process, most analysts have him rated as a sure-fire top-five pick.

With such a high draft grade comes extra scrutiny, both on and off the field. It’s already starting for Key, who was away from the LSU program since February for what was described as ‘personal reasons‘.

Key re-joined his teammates Monday.  Scouts and front office executives are going to dig deep into his background — including why he left Baton Rouge — for the next 10 months.

Key’s departure isn’t the only issue he’ll face. He’s coming off shoulder surgery this offseason and with high-profile 2017 draft picks Jonathan Allen and Reuben Foster each suffering draft-day falls because of their shoulder ailments, Key’s injury will become more relevant this winter.

On the field, Key is coming off a record-setting season at LSU. His 12 sacks in 2016 were the most by a pass-rusher in school history. At 6-foot-6, his length and twitch off the snap combine to create the ultimate challenge for opposing linemen.

He’s not the perfect prospect, though. He’s very lean — he played at 238 last season — and his lack of bulk was obvious at times. If he didn’t win with speed and quickness at the snap, he was neutralized. His impact was eerily similar to Barkevious Mingo, a former LSU standout and NFL bust.

LSU coach Ed Orgeron said Key has bulked up to 255. That’s a great thing if true, especially if he can maintain his quick playing style.

Key’s preseason draft value reminds me a lot of what Randy Gregory’s was prior to his final season (2014) at Nebraska. While Gregory slipped for reasons off the field, he had some doubters — including me — about his ability to become a consistently impactful pass rusher in the NFL.

For Key to truly become an elite prospect, he’ll have to show more power at the point of attack this season. There’s no denying his ability to get after the quarterback, which ultimately trumps all things in the first round. If he has another productive season and can avoid any major injuries, Key should be one of many underclassmen to declare for the 2018 NFL Draft.