BATON ROUGE, La. — Of the six LSU underclassmen who declared for the 2018 NFL Draft, edge rusher Arden Key likely will be the first one selected. And interestingly enough, he should be the easiest one for LSU to replace.
Key is a consensus top-15 talent whom ESPN’s Todd McShay has ranked as the No. 7 prospect in this draft class and who SEC Country’s Connor Riley projects to be picked No. 11 by the Miami Dolphins. He’s LSU’s all-time leader for sacks in a single season, amassing 12 as a sophomore in 2016. And even in an injury-shortened 2017 season, Key’s presence was undeniable. Fighting through double teams and opponents playing keep away from his direction, Key notched 4 sacks and 8 quarterback hurries in eight games played.
Still, Key shouldn’t be too hard to replace in 2018. Because he missed so much time in 2017 for a variety of reasons, Key’s replacements on the roster are both obvious and experienced. On top of that, LSU did a quality job of recruiting edge rushers for the Class of 2018, supplying some much-needed depth.
Here are LSU’s options to replace Key next season:
If there’s anyone on LSU’s roster who has a chance to replicate Key’s success, it’s rising sophomore K’Lavon Chaisson. Chaisson arrived in Baton Rouge last August as a 4-star recruit, ranked as a top-5 prospect at his position. Because of Key’s injuries and personal issues, LSU coach Ed Orgeron thrust Chaisson into the starting lineup from Day 1.
The freshman from Houston made three starts and played in 12 of LSU’s 13 games last season, accumulating 27 tackles with 4½ tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 2 quarterback hurries and 2 pass breakups. Both of his sacks and 2½ of his tackles for loss came against FCS opponent Chattanooga.
At 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, Chaisson is a quick-twitch pass rusher who resembles Key physically. He needs to grow more stout against the run if he wants to be an every-down player, but his pass-rush skills are developed and natural enough that he’ll likely start in 2018.
Another Texas product, Ray Thornton started LSU’s final two games in 2017 while Key battled knee and hand injuries. Regarded as a more natural run stopper, the 6-3, 228-pound Thornton recorded 10 tackles (1 for loss), 1 pass breakup and a quarterback hurry in his redshirt freshman season.
As you’d expect, Thornton was most productive in the games he earned the most exposure. After making a combined 4 tackles in LSU’s first 11 games (he didn’t play in seven of them), Thornton made 6 tackles against Texas A&M and Notre Dame, and he broke up a pass in coverage against the Fighting Irish.
It’s easy to forget this now with the season behind us, but coming into fall camp the competition to be Key’s backup was three-headed, not two. Along with Chaisson and Thornton sat redshirt freshman Andre Anthony, who unfortunately missed all of 2017 with an ankle injury.
The New Orleans product hasn’t played since 2015 when he helped lead Edna Karr High School to the Louisiana state championship game. He took a redshirt in 2016 before his injury-lost 2017 season. But at 6-5 and 242 pounds, Anthony has the prototypical size to serve as LSU’s B-backer, not to mention his production history. As a senior in high school, Anthony tallied 56 tackles and 8 sacks.
LSU’s highest-rated defensive signee for the Class of 2018, Dallas Carter High School product Jarell Cherry is one of the incoming freshmen most poised to see early playing time.
Listed at 6-3 and 225 pounds, Cherry chose LSU over offers from in-state powerhouses Texas and Texas A&M, as well as Alabama, Oklahoma, Michigan and other prominent programs. In fact, Cherry shut down his recruitment after committing to LSU in April, choosing not to take any additional visits.
As a senior in 2017, Cherry amassed 67 tackles, 16 sacks and 24 tackles for loss.
The top junior-college edge-rushing prospect for the Class of 2018, Bastrop native Travez Moore arrives at LSU by way of Copiah Lincoln Community College. The 6-4, 250-pound junior reportedly was interested in signing with LSU while in high school but couldn’t get his grades high enough to qualify.
Because of his time in junior college, Moore will be LSU’s elder statesman among the edge-rusher room. It wouldn’t be a shock to see Moore also earn some reps at F-backer, replacing senior Corey Thompson in that role.