The New Orleans Saints were just one of an entire handful of head coaches and general managers from across the NFL that made their way to the LSU Tigers' indoor practice facility in Baton Rouge yesterday, to watch a total of 26 former LSU football stars perform at their 2018 Pro Day in advance of the 2018 NFL Draft later this month.
Of the 26 former Tigers that participated in yesterday's annual event, it was 4 players — RB Derrius Guice, wide receiver D.J. Chark, cornerback Donte' Jackson, and defensive end Arden Key — all of whom are all potential early round picks; that most of the League dignitaries and talent evaluators on hand, were interested in watching most.
But the player that garnered the most attention unquestionably was the talented but troubled Key, who didn't really do anything to strengthen his already questionable draft status with the Draft now only 3 weeks from tonight (Thursday Night, April 26th).
As some may recall: Key stunned the college football world last year when he left the program during the late winter / early Spring-time, to allegedly take care of some "personal matters"; which now a year later still remains shrouded in mystery with regard to where he went or why he chose to do so, in the first place.
Even worse, when Key eventually did decide to return to the LSU football program in early June, it was discovered that he recently had surgery to repair a rotator cuff injury that he played the previous season through.
And then to top it all off, Key returned to the team at a whopping 278 pounds, which means that he gained nearly 40 pounds (maybe he just had the "munchies"?) in just a matter of a few months, after playing in the 235-240-pound range during the 2016 season.
But Key did not work out at the NFL Scouting Combine last month, choosing to wait instead for his Pro Day on Wednesday.
So what really happened while he was away?
Pro Football Weekly NFL Draft Analyst Eric Edholm says that he reached out on behalf of their website to two NFL teams that spoke with Key to find out what happened — and double-checked with a source in Baton Rouge. Key left the program to enter rehab, they said, for marijuana.
Edholm notes that he got the impression that the NFL wasn’t too concerned about that, even though he was briefly suspended after one failed test upon returning to school.
The biggest concern however for most NFL personnel executives is the fact that Key decided to go "rogue"; and started listening to people outside of the LSU program for advice on things such as his medical status, which included having the shoulder / rotator cuff surgery performed privately at another facility rather than by someone associated with the school's medical staff.
An anonymous NFC scouting director told Edholm yesterday that Key's actions within this past year raises a red flag.
“It’s always concerning when you have [players] going out on their own for medical advice, second opinions, because you don’t always know what people are telling them,” the director said. “You’re going to listen to some other doctor that’s never seen you before because a mentor of yours recommended him? That’s where we have concerns. It’s not the weed or the weight or any of that; that stuff we can deal with."
Now that we've finally been given the "scoop" on the mysterious events of the past year, we can see what Key's issues were, which appear to be about maturity — and the fact that he is still just a young 21-year old who's doing things that 21-year olds normally do.
It doesn't excuse his actions and clearly Key has some growing up to do, but that still won't stop most NFL teams that could certainly could utilize his explosive pass-rushing capabilities, from taking him anyway.
The main thing now for Key going forward will be when he will be selected, and by who.
Key's lingering issues presumably will see him "fall" in this Draft, but what's uncertain at the moment is how far he will tumble down some team's Draft Boards.
But for a team that has listed an EDGE pass rusher as one of its off-season "musts", the Saints should have an eye on Key beginning on Day 2 (Friday, April 27th) and be aware of his availability from that point on.
Yes, we know that the Saints have shied away in recent years from players that have had notable off-the-field issues, but Key might be a player that they'd make an exception for — especially if he's still sitting there when the Saints are back 'on the clock' for their pick in Round 3 (#91 overall).
Key would be an absolute STEAL at that point of the Draft (or possibly even later); and some NFL team is going to get a player with the potential to eventually blossom into one of the League's most feared defensive players, assuming of course that he can keep his head screwed on right.
But if you're the Saints, you don't expect Key to be a defensive "savior" — you just need him to SACK QUARTERBACKS.
As it turns out, Key said yesterday that the Saints were one of the teams that have expressed a great interest in him.
They treated him to dinner at a Baton Rouge restaurant on Tuesday Night; and also plan to work him out privately at the team's training facility in Metairie in 2 weeks from now (Wednesday, April 18th).
"Who Dat!" Key said excitedly, and well aware of the multitude of local reporters that cover the Saints whom were present.
"I met with them at the combine. I just met with them yesterday at a dinner. I'll meet with them Thursday. They'll have me for a private workout."
Saints general manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton were both present and watching him; with Loomis telling reporters later following the event's conclusion that "he's a talented player. This is part of the process. We'll see what happens."
Said Key in his final statement to reporters before leaving for the day:
"Whoever picks me up, they're going to have a pass rusher and a problem solver. For those who didn't pick me up and pass me over? Shame on them."
Make no mistake about it: Key WILL be taken by some team on Day 2, because in this day and age in the NFL finding an EDGE rusher with the talent that Key possesses, can become critical;y important to a team's overall success.
Pass rushers, regardless if they're 3-4 outside linebackers or 4-3 defensive ends, are worth a premium to NFL clubs come draft day. In fact, during last year's 2017 NFL Draft, a total of seven EDGE pass rushers got drafted in the first round. Because of their very unique, stand-out capability to disrupt NFL offenses in the passing game, EDGE players will always carry value.
Key is arguably one of the most gifted pass rushers in this class. And as some may have forgotten: as a sophomore in 2016, he dominated the competition (12 sacks, 14.5 tackles for loss and 3 forced fumbles) in arguably the nation's toughest college football conference, the SEC.
For the Saints, if Key is still somehow available to them once that they are back on the clock in Round 3, the issue will simply come down to whether or not they feel that he can be TRUSTED.
“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.”
Key turns 22 next month, and presumably will be focused by that time on getting acclimated to life in the NFL during his first few weeks as a rookie. But.....
Can the team that drafts him have the peace of mind knowing that Key will keep his word, and remain focused on building an NFL career filled with unlimited potential?
Or — will he suddenly disappear unannounced for weeks at a time, presumably while hanging out and "blazing down" a couple of pounds of weed somewhere with a group of stoners calling themselves 'marijuana enthusiasts'(?)
Unfortunately, that will remain as the great unknown for now.
But what we do know is that despite all of his "baggage", Arden Key possesses enough pure talent to become an NFL defensive star, if he WANTS to. The biggest factor in his eventual success or failure, will ultimately be determined by his desire to be true to himself.
The Saints and the other 31 NFL teams will all have an interest in Key on Day 2 of the Draft, because he is a special talent at a premium position. At the end of the day, that's all that will matter for most teams in spite of his actions of the past year.
If a team feels that Key can get his personal life squared away and began the path towards maturity and responsibility (as he tried to project yesterday); and could potentially thrive in a solid and stable environment surrounded by people with his best interests at heart, then they will likely take that chance.