The Jets won this week, so there's no "It could be worse". Instead, we're going to reward ourselves with a look at something related to next April's draft.
Today, we're going to look at the downfall of a player once regarded as one of the top edge prospects in the 2018 draft, Arden Key of Louisiana State. Why has his production dropped off? Are these permanent problems or can some of them be fixed? Are there signs of his elite potential in spite of his reduced production?
If you looked at a mock draft during the offseason but have been focused on the NFL regular season since that time, you'll recognize Key's name as most publications had him as one of their top edge defenders, with many earmarking him as a possible top five pick and perhaps the first defensive player to be selected.
Here's a snapshot of what Key (#49) can do:
Sold? You shouldn't be, because he's having a really poor season so far. A slow start had seen him record just half a sack so far this season, entering Saturday's game against Florida. This came to a head when the Tigers were upset by lowly Troy, with Key failing to register a single quarterback pressure.
Coach Ed Orgeron vowed that the Tigers would bounce back in Florida and they did, winning 17-16 in an exciting game. However, Key wasn't exactly a major contributor. Let's break down his contributions before we consider what's going on with him.
On this early play, Key pursued a pass out to the flat. Although he perhaps reacted half a beat late, letting the runner get down the sideline for good yardage, he didn't give up on the play, chasing the runner down to make a tackle with the simultaneous hit from his teammate dislodging the ball:
One good way to neutralize a good pass rusher is to get the ball out quickly and that's what Florida do here. Key reacts and almost gets into the passing lane (but doesn't) then tries to make the tackle in the flat (but doesn't). If he's perhaps lost half a step since last year for whatever reason, these could have been plays he would have made in 2016:
Early returns from Key as a pass rusher were not good. He has the burst to get outside leverage, but the right tackle has no problem directing him easily upfield and giving the quarterback plenty of room to step up. It's almost as if he lacks the strength and stability to stay balanced as he tries to bend the edge:
In the running game, he takes on a block aggressively here, but shows poor vision in doing so because the runner is easily able to get to the outside. Had he just stayed at home, he would have been able to get upfield and force the run to be bottled up:
On this play, he again anticipates the quick pass and drops off into the passing lane, just missing the deflection. Once again he was a split second reaction or maybe a couple of inches more of vertical away from making this play:
Here's another run where the runner goes outside. Key is working his way downhill, focused on his footwork and engaging the blocker, but simply isn't playing with his head up and realizes too late that the run is going straight into the teeth of the area he's just vacated. Making matters worse, he compounds this with a late hit penalty at the end of the run:
Key blitzes off the edge here and LSU ends up getting a sack. However, it's not like this is a situation where he draws a double-team and someone else has an easy assignment as a result. Far from it, in fact, as he is once again easily redirected, by a tight end:
Finally, Key at last beats his man around the edge to affect a throw on this late play. It doesn't help though, as the quarterback has an easy checkdown option, who then breaks a couple of tackles for a first down:
LSU's defense managed to hold on and secure the win, though. On the crucial fourth down to end the game, when you'd expect him to be applying pressure, Key actually dropped off to pick up one of the primary options in the slot and the quarterback's pass to another receiver over the middle was broken up.
Clearly, Key isn't the same player he was this time last year. That sounds familiar, as Jets fans have been wondering why that was the case for Quinton Coples in 2015, Muhammad Wilkerson in 2016 and Leonard Williams this year. In each case, there were several factors at play and that's also the situation with Key.
The first question has to be whether he's 100 percent and clearly he is not. Orgeron has described Key as "very rusty" following an offseason shoulder surgery that caused him to spend time away from the team and miss all of spring's practices and most of fall camp.
He's also, according to Orgeron, not in football shape. Apparently he gained some weight during the offseason and, although he's dropped most of it to get back down to 260, they want him to shed more.
If these issues have caused Key to lose a step, then there's some optimism that once he gets back into shape, he's going to start making more plays. There were a number of examples in the Florida game where he almost made a play and Orgeron made mention of the fact that Key "could have had three sacks" in his first appearance of the year, having missed the first two games. It may also make Key that much more effective as a pass rusher and in the trenches if he can improve his strength and stability.
Part of the narrative has been that teams are giving more attention to Key because he's lost some talented teammates and is now a focal point of the defense, but that didn't seem to be a major factor in the Florida game. His per-game snap count has been down slightly compared to last year, though.
Despite these factors, there are still some worrying red flags to come out of all of this. Obviously the injury and resulting surgery is a concern. His failure to return to the team in shape is another. Concerns about his motor, which some had even during his excellent first two seasons, will persist based on the fatigue and apparent poor effort on his film.
Finally, this loss of explosiveness seems to have exposed Key as being someone who relied too much on his athleticism and that may have underdeveloped instincts and techniques.
Assuming he can't get healthy and allay most of these concerns before the year is out, what will this do to his draft stock? It's interesting to compare him to Barkevious Mingo, another LSU edge defender who had a lot of scouts questioning his pedigree prior to the draft. Mingo ultimately still went sixth, surprising many, but has been a flop at the NFL level.
Mock drafts already seem to be knocking Key down to the second half of the first round with the likes of Bradley Chubb and Harold Landry emerging as more fashionable alternatives, despite not yet being considered consensus top ten picks. If he continues to struggle, Key's stock will fall even further - perhaps even moreso than it would have done if he was just listed as injured and not playing. If that happens, he might even seek to stay in school.
If the Jets opt not to use their first pick on a franchise quarterback as many assume they will, an edge rusher could be the kind of difference maker they will covet. However, right now, there don't seem to be any obvious candidates to be worthy of a pick that high.
If the Jets can convince themselves that Key's issues can be overcome and that he can live up to his potential and be productive once he gets back in shape, perhaps he could end up being a consideration for them later on in the draft instead. His progress will be worth keeping tabs on.
BONUS LINK: Some good analysis on Key's lack of production in the Troy game, highlighting many of the same issues we've seen here.