When pick 18 of the first round arrives around 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 26, at the 2018 NFL Draft, and the Seattle Seahawks are finally on the clock, and Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea is still on the board, one impulse will course through thousands of fans’ nervous systems. Twelves will try and send one simple, ten-character message via telepathic means to the Seattle braintrust:
But the Seahawks won’t. Of course they won’t. John Schneider will trade back, or he and Pete Carroll will draw their smart little heads near to each other, nod, and proceed to take the guy you don’t want, the guy everyone had mocked later or not at all, the guy who sends your hand straight to your head, fully engaged in scratch mode.
Because they’ll take someone like... Arden Key.
Rest assured. The LSU Tiger does not carry the ball, throw it, or kick it, unless it bounces into his hand or off his foot following a forced fumble. The Seahawks will not* be selecting a running back, quarterback or kicker with their first selection. Key’s a pass rusher. Just not the one everyone expects.
*jinxed us all, probably, sorry everyone
Look, if Relatively Obscure were the name of a real player eligible for the 2018 NFL Draft, Pete and John would already have placed him at the upper left-hand corner of the whiteboard in their war room.
2011: James Carpenter. In an unusual development, his own coach expressed surprise Carpenter went in the first round.
2012: Bruce Irvin. So many draft watchers called Irvin’s selection an overreach — part of the reason they graded the 2012 haul so negatively.
2013: Christine Michael. The obvious athleticism was too enticing for Seattle to pass, but remember C-Mike had rushed for all of 417 yards his senior season at Texas A&M, and was two years removed from surgery. Marshawn Lynch was in his prime. Perhaps this was the biggest “huh?” in PCJS draft history.
2014: Paul Richardson. Coming off a Super Bowl win and with a finally healthy Percy Harvin in the fold, many were baffled that another small receiver topped the Seahawks’ list. Especially one who’d been kicked off Rick Neuheisel’s UCLA team and had had both MCL and ACL issues. (Never mind he just signed a $40 million contract, proving so many doubters wrong.)
2015: Frank Clark. Few saw this selection coming because Clark had played himself off the national radar with his well-documented legal troubles (the domestic dispute and a home invasion charge) at Michigan.
Sure, in 2016 Seattle first nabbed Germain Ifedi, a tackle that some analysts had pegged as a target, because of obvious need. And in 2017 it was the somewhat-hyped Malik McDowell coming in at 2.35, but he was the third d-lineman picked by Seattle in the last three second rounds. It’s become what the Seahawks do, take linemen early and then go from there.
Once we get past the reasons Key is flying a little under the radar, there’s a lot to like. His 2016 highlight reel is impressive.
And his most recent game against Florida is cut up here below. Plenty of explosiveness and savvy on display.
But in draft circles, Key isn’t thought of on the same level as Bradley Chubb, Sam Davenport, Harold Landry, or sometimes Sam Hubbard. His name has stayed off the first-round mock drafts, so fans are less familiar with him. Which makes sense for a handful of reasons.
He didn’t impress with his 40 times at his pro day: 4.85 and 4.87. By comparison, recent Seahawks defensive ends clocked in at 4.63 (Cliff Avril) and 4.79 (Frank Clark). Michael Bennett ran a 5.0 even. Of course, he went undrafted.
Key also missed time for undisclosed reasons in the spring between his sophomore and junior seasons. The reasons aren’t clear, even a year later.
His weight’s been all over the place. 280 pounds after surgery, 238 at the combine and for his pro day, but also 250 in between. Another red flag that could scare certain teams away.
And then, Key’s performance in 2016 clearly outshined his 2017. In fact, he came to LSU as a top 25 national recruit and made an immediate impact his freshman and sophomore seasons, averaging 8.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss, in the SEC no less. But a lackluster junior season saw his production dip to four sacks and 5.5 TFL.
Overall, NFL.com’s people settled on a 5.75 grade for him; on their scale, a 7 represents a Pro Bowl caliber player, a 6 is an immediate starter, and a 5 is a 50-50 chance to make the roster.
That 5.75 score explains why Key is often projected for the second round. Read around the interwebs, and he’s often the fourth or fifth edge rusher listed. So why would the Seahawks be interested in him for the first?
Length. Key is 6’6” and figures to play around 250 pounds. He would be taller than almost all the defensive ends who’ve suited up for Carroll’s Seahawks. Bennett, Avril, Clark and even Chris Clemons all measured 6’3” or shorter. Demarcus Dobbs appeared in 11 games for the 2015 Seahawks at the same height as Key. Add in Key’s 33 1⁄2 arms and that’s a man who takes up a great deal of airspace on the edge. Dude is long, and Seattle likes long.
Versatility. There’s talk that Key could serve as a hybrid linebacker/pass rusher at the next level. Remind you of anyone the Seahawks chose supposedly too early in 2012? Key isn’t as powerfully built as Irvin, he’s definitely leaner, but Carroll and Ken Norton could find a way to get him on the field like they did with Bruce. Guys who can be on the field in different defensive formations are valuable. It’s quite possible Seattle sees Key as a leaner Irvin.
Need. With Bennett having traded his hawk feathers in for eagle wings, and with Avril’s future very much in doubt, the pass rushing responsibilities of the 2018 Seahawks fall, so far, on the shoulders of Clark, Dion Jordan, Noble Nwachukwu and Marcus Smith. Along with cornerback, pass rush lacks depth right now on the Seahawks roster. And even if the depth were there, collecting too much pass rush is the opposite of a problem.
Adversity. Finally, the Seahawks like guys who show something beyond the box score. Key dealt with the pressure of being a top 25 recruit, came into LSU and fit right in, then dealt with his issues, whatever they were, with discretion and enough success to return by the fall. What other NFL teams might see as a negative or as yet another red flag, the Seahawks might see as a positive. An older quote from Irvin — who else? — puts things perfectly:
I think Pete does a great job of bringing our type of guys in. Our type of guys means guys who have faced adversity, who have been through stuff. That’s what our team is about. We know we’re a one-of-a-kind team in the league.
Many analysts would hate the selection of Key at 1.18. That alone is one reason it’s so very easy to envision it happening. Granted, Key will probably be available later in the first. Or even somewhere in the second round... where the Seahawks are likely to land in their effort to acquire more picks. So if they don’t “reach” for him at 18, they can always do so again at 23, or 31, after they trade back with New England and politely set the Patriots up for their next quaterback of the future. See? Everyone wins.