Arden Key has nowhere to hide this week.
The former LSU outside linebacker will be under 32 different microscopes at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. There, the questions that have followed him for an entire year will finally be answered.
“He’s the most intriguing prospect probably since Tyrann Mathieu,” said Louisiana-based draft guru Mike Detillier. “LSU hasn’t had a prospect like him [since then] who is so immensely gifted. Every team would like to have him, because pass rushers are gold in the NFL. But there is the question mark about off the field.”
Mathieu’s problems were painstakingly documented on public record.
He was dismissed from the LSU program in August 2012. After briefly considering a transfer to FCS McNeese State, he entered a drug rehab program. A month later, he enrolled back at LSU as a regular student — but by the end of October, he was arrested along with three former teammates on a marijuana possession charge.
With all that out in the open, Mathieu was seen as an obvious risk in the 2013 NFL Draft. But after meeting with him, the Arizona Cardinals still believed in Mathieu enough to invest a third-round pick. He was honest about how he got himself into trouble, and what he would do to stay out of it.
There’s no such paper trail with Key. His temporary departure from the program last spring was for the ever-ambiguous “personal reasons.” His only media interview since then was with NFL.com last week. The leave of absence was only addressed in one passing sentence.
The lack of evidence may make it tempting for Key to tap-dance around the questions he’ll be asked. For his sake, the people advising him need to make sure he does exactly the opposite. Key needs to approach questions about his whereabouts and character the same way he does quarterbacks — head-on and without hesitation.
“The NFL knows about his issues. He’s got to come clean about that,” Detillier said. “They know the answers to any questions they give him. You have to be forward about it. It’s not the first time a player has had issues off the field.”
Detillier said that if Key does not come clean, teams are going to view him as warily as they did Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory in 2015. Gregory was viewed as a top-10 prospect, but plummeted all the way to the 60th overall pick, where he was picked by Dallas.
Other teams were wise to pass on him. Gregory has played only 14 games in three seasons with the Cowboys because of multiple suspensions for failed drug tests.
Gregory serves as the ultimate cautionary tale and perhaps an unfair comparison for any other player. But because he set the precedent, teams will always exercise extreme caution with a perceived risk.
“If I’m investing a lot of money in you, I want to find out about you,” Detillier said. “He had a tremendous sophomore year. We saw glimpses last year. The Alabama game was best. I think the off-the-field issues are paramount. That’s where he has to clear this up for the NFL.”
Key could have done that months ago, but was cordoned off from interviews by LSU despite weekly requests. Though he will still be grilled by NFL teams this week, the silent treatment may not have done him any favors.
“If I’m around him, I’d have said, ‘Hey, address it now and it’s finished,’ ” Detillier said. “Especially to hometown reporters. They’re not going to hit me with a pitchfork.”
But provided Key has the right answers with NFL general managers, none of that will matter all that much.
“I don’t know if there’s a right way or wrong way to handle that,” Detillier said. “I can see the other part — play the season out and we’ll address it when we have to address it.”
On top of all that, Key has plenty to prove in drills after an underwhelming junior season. He seems confident he’ll be able to do so after dropping back to 245 pounds from somewhere around 280.
“The junior Arden Key doesn’t exist anymore,” he said in his NFL.com interview. “He’s gone.”
For the sake of Arden Key’s still-promising future, the key is proving that’s true in more ways than one.