Career Recap: If the Heisman Trophy was genuinely awarded to the best player in college football, Alabama's Jonathan Allen would have won the award in 2016. But of course, defensive players are all but ignored for the sham that is the Heisman Trophy. If the award was focused on the best players in the nation, LSU defensive end Key would have have been a finalist last season as he was of the best players in college football. In fact, Key played better, had a bigger presence, and impacted the game more than Texas A&M's Myles Garrett, who went No. 1 overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. Key recorded 56 tackles with 14.5 for a loss, 12 sacks, three forced fumbles and three passes broken up on the year. It wasn't even the first good season from Key as he flashed a ton of potential as a freshman for LSU, totaling 41 tackles with 6.5 for a loss, five sacks and one pass broken up.
During the spring of 2017, Key took some time away from the team for "personal reasons." He also had shoulder surgery during the offseason, and his return to the field has not been defined at the start of fall camp.
2017 Season Outlook: The top three offensive tackle prospects for the 2018 NFL Draft are Washington's Trey Adams, Texas' Connor Williams and Notre Dames' Mike McGlinchey. Unfortunately, none of them are on Key's schedule, but he still will see some good offensive line talents who will play on Sundays. On September 16th, LSU will travel to Mississippi State, where Key will be needed to defend dual-threat quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. The Bulldogs also have a tackle in Martinas Rankin who was given a second-round estimation by the NFL Draft Advisory for the 2017 NFL Draft. Hopefully, Key will have reps against Rankin.
In early October, Key will see a tough test with Florida Gators left tackle Martez Ivey, a great athlete who impressed at guard and is now moving to tackle. Key will also see some talented offensive tackles when he takes on Auburn and Alabama. His run defense will be tested by both of those teams as well. Other teams like Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas A&M could also field good players to battle Key.
Skill-Set Summary: Key should provide the passing-driven NFL with a dynamic quarterback hunter who has a rare skill set and is an extremely developed pass-rusher. As a prospect, Key has the potential to end up grading out like other highly esteemed edge defenders who ended up being selected No. 1 overall in Jadeveon Clowney and Myles Garrett. Sources who have done advance work on the 2018 NFL Draft have Key as one of the top prospects for the draft class regardless of position, and think he is a better player or prospect than any of the highly hyped quarterbacks.
One source is a passionate believer in Key being a unique prospect, saying that he is the most-developed and diverse pass-rusher who the SEC has had over the past decade, including Garrett and Clowney. They see Key as having transcendent ability for what he can do on the field for his defense. They think that Key may not be as explosive as those Garrett and Clowney with raw power or raw speed, but considered Key to be way ahead and more advanced on pressuring the quarterback as a rusher than they were. That is high praise considering both went No. 1 overall as rare freak athletes. Clowney already is a Pro Bowler, so this is high praise for Key.
Sources think that Key will run the 40-yard dash in the 4.65-4.75-second range, which is not as fast as Clowney who ran in the 4.5s like a wide receiver. However, there is no doubt that on the field Key is a fast, dangerous edge rusher. He has a quick first-step and is able to consistently blow by tackles. In an instant, Key can close on the quarterback with the ability to sink his hips and bend around the corner. He also has has an advanced feel for taking on tackles to get after the quarterback.
Key is phenomenal at using his speed to get upfield, sinking his hips to dip underneath the block, and then ripping with his inside arm to prevent blockers from getting a hold of him. From there, he uses his tremendous closing speed to finish the rush and can lay some hard hits on quarterbacks. Key has excellent agility with fluid athleticism, allowing him to be very dynamic in the open field and easily redirect to the quarterback.
Key is an adequate run defender. He isn't a liability, and he should improve as he develops more grown-man strength in the NFL. Key has the frame to add weight if his pro team desires, but keeping him fast in the 255-265-pound range is probably best. For the NFL, Key should continue to work on adding more pass-rushing moves as well.
Some of the biggest tests for Key in 2017 will come off the field. Teams are going to dig into the personal reasons that caused him to leave the team in the spring of 2017, and the junior needs to show teams that he isn't a character concern in the pre-draft interviews. He also needs to stay healthy coming off his shoulder surgery. Garrett and Clowney both were banged up as juniors, which led to their production levels declining from what they did as sophomores. It wouldn't be surprising if Key has a smaller stat line as a junior, like those two, as he will face constant double teams with plays going away from him. Declining production won't hurt Key if he stays healthy, stays out of trouble, and has solid play on the field.
For the NFL, Key could be a dynamic edge defender with the ability to take over games and help neutralize an elite franchise quarterback. One of the only ways to stop an elite quarterback is dominate in the pass rush at the point of attack. Key could be a game-changer and defensive franchise player.
2018 NFL Draft Expectations: Entering the 2017 season, Key is a favorite to be one of the top prospects for the 2018 NFL Draft. If he can stay healthy, productive, and clean off the field, he looks like a lock as the top-five pick. Where he goes in that range will depend a lot on the teams picking there along with their situation at quarterback, but Key is a contender to be the No. 1-overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.