ALAMEDA, Calif. – Looking for the epitome of the Oakland Raiders’ boom-or-bust draft class, coach Jon Gruden’s first in Oakland since 2001?
Look no further than the Raiders’ fourth of nine picks, a self-styled top-five talent who fell to the back of the third round, where Oakland snatched him up at No. 87.
Yes, there were character concerns when it came to Arden Key.
“I went through some situations that caused me to be a third-round pick,” said the former LSU defensive end. “I’ve learned from those things, and this is the consequence of me going through what I went through. I’m a better person now than I was prior to it.”
Boom? Key set a school single-season record with 12 sacks as a sophomore in 2016 and had 21 sacks in 31 career games for the Tigers. The Raiders, even with the presence of Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin, need help getting to the quarterback. If a healthy and motivated Key can address that need, he’s a draft steal.
Bust? Key, after being suspended for the 2016 season finale, took a leave of absence in the spring of 2017 — reportedly to go to rehab for marijuana use — and had a subpar season last fall with four sacks and five missed games due to injury as his weight got as high as 280 pounds. He was coming back from shoulder surgery in May and endured a knee injury as well as a broken right pinkie finger that required surgery. Can the Raiders truly trust him?
Key’s talent was too tantalizing for Oakland to pass up.
“We had [Key] ranked very, very high as a pure pass-rusher in this draft,” Gruden said. “It’s a commodity that’s hard to find. I’ve heard a lot of critics have talked about the risk involved.”
“There is risk involved with every pick,” he continued. “There’s risk involved with taking a five-flat [speed] defensive end. But I like this kid a lot. He checked out with us, and he can bend the edge, I know that.”
Officially, Key had 40 times of 4.89 and 4.91 seconds at LSU’s pro day in early April. But that is not what should have the Raiders concerned.
ESPN draft insider Mel Kiper, Jr. said Key has talent, obviously, but needs to be coached up by the Raiders while eliminating off-the-field concerns.
“He had a big season two years ago with 12 sacks, but even then, was too one-dimensional,” Kiper said. “The majority of his impact plays were versus the pass. He has to get stronger and has to become more polished in terms of pass-rush moves. [He] beat collegiate OTs with speed and has shown the ability to bend the edge. But he’ll need to convert speed to power in the NFL and also maintain the proper weight where he can maximize his talent.
“In the later portion of Round 3, he’s worth a roll of the dice. Jon Gruden always talks about closing out and finishing games. You do that by having multiple pass-rushers. That’s how the Eagles finished things off against Tom Brady and the Pats with Brandon Graham‘s strip sack. Key brings that element if you can keep him focused on the job at hand and maximize all of his talent and athleticism.”
Key chose to wear No. 99 and, at 6-feet-6 and a much sleeker 246 pounds, bears a striking resemblance to a former Raiders pass-rusher who wore those digits and dealt with off-the field demons.
And although it is not fair to compare Key to Aldon Smith, who was released by the Raiders this offseason and is still serving an NFL-mandated suspension thanks in part to his well-documented problems, it was Key who mentioned Smith when talking about pass-rushers he would emulate.
“Some of the greats in Warren Sapp, Jason Taylor, Aldon Smith,” Key said. “You have a lot of greats that wore that number, so I said, ‘Why not wear it?’”
The Raiders’ 56 combined sacks the past two seasons are the second fewest in the NFL. The Raiders drafting Key, along with pass-rushing defensive tackles P.J. Hall and Maurice Hurst in the second and fifth rounds, makes sense as a high-risk, high-reward proposition.
“As far as character, we’re not going to condemn these kids for mistakes,” Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie said. “We’re not going to lower our standards. Ever. But we feel like we have a great system in place to help guys who have fallen.
“If they’re willing to stand up, own it and get better within themselves, we’re going to give them a shot. We’re going to hold them accountable, and this staff is going to do a great job of holding them accountable and helping them.”
Part of that system is having the likes of Key meet with a veteran like Irvin and hear him tell the story of how he emerged from a hardscrabble upbringing on the streets of Atlanta to becoming a Super Bowl champion with the Seattle Seahawks.
Irvin reportedly showed the new players his ring during rookie minicamp.
“Just the all-around game,” Key, who is also from the Atlanta area, said of what he hoped to glean from Irvin. “How to be a pro. Just a lot of pass-rush skills. There’s still some things that I don’t know as far as pass rushing that he knows. He’s an eight-year vet, so he knows a lot that I don’t know. I’m just a rookie.”
Key also visited with Raiders director of player engagement Lamonte Winston about life off the field.
“He is off the chart,” Key said. “We had a long talk [on a pre-draft visit]. We talked about things outside of football, what I want to do as far as business and career, things of that sort. We wrote a plan out, and we stuck with that plan. It was saying I was going to be a Raider. We spoke it into existence, now look where I’m at.”
Then there is working with Oakland strength and conditioning coach Tom Shaw and his staff to continue strengthening that surgically repaired shoulder.
“The goal is just to get stronger,” Key said. “Make sure my shoulders and things are right and just get stronger.
“It’s good now; it’s just strengthening.”
While Key, who turned 22 on May 3, would not go into specifics about his other issues, he did tell teams at the combine that he had been sober for a year. And that, physically, he feels as good as he did in his breakout sophomore season of 2016.
“I’m not the guy that the media portrays me to be,” he said. “Everybody knows, talent-wise, if we’re just talking talent, [I’m a] top-five pick, automatic.
“Just stay the straight path. Talent was not the reason why any of this happened; off-the-field issues. And we set a plan. I trust them, and they trust me. We’re just going to keep on moving with the plan.”