By now you’re likely well versed in the criticisms Jon Gruden and the Raiders have received with regard to their 2018 draft class. From about the third round on, the loudest criticisms surround the risk factor of the players they selected, whether it be due to injuries or character. The first player they took who had serious character red flags was Arden Key, who they selected at 87 overall in the third round.
After a fantastic sophomore season in which he had 11.0 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss, Key was to head into his junior season pegged as one of the top prospects in the nation. But over that summer, he took time away from the team for ‘personal reasons’, and when he came back he had had shoulder surgery, causing him to miss the first two games of the season.
He was said to have shown up out of shape as well. Naturally this series of events would have NFL scouts and coaches doing a great deal of research into what kind of person they were getting. The results of that research weren’t good according to an unnamed executive told The Athletic.
“He was off our board,” he said. “We wouldn’t have touched him. Clearly has talent, but you were not going to find many people at LSU vouching for him.”
It’s important to note that Key didn’t have any run-ins with the law or fail any drug tests (that was Raiders’ 6th round pick Azeem Victor). Teams just worry if he’ll have the right attitude and work ethic to succeed at the NFL level.
Key will be the first to tell you he would have been selected higher had it not been for character concerns.
“I know I’m not a third-round pick, I’m a first-round talent, top five,” said Key shortly after being selected. “I went through some situations that caused me to be a third-round pick. I’ve learned from those things and this is the consequence of me going through what I went through.”
Top five is a little ambitious, although had he been able to repeat his sophomore season with the injury and the character questions, he absolutely was going to be a high draft pick. But high picks fail because of character flaws that simply aren’t revealed before the draft. And it scared a lot of teams away.
The Raiders did their due diligence with Key. He visited Oakland where he of course spoke with defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, defensive line coach Mike Trgovic. But he really hit it off with Director of Player engagement, Lamonte Wilson, who Key said is “off the chart.”
“We had a long talk,” Key said of Wilson. “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.”
“I was honest. I spoke up on the mistakes I made and the plan that I need. Now, it’s not a surprise or ‘what kind of plan do we need to set for this guy?’ This is the plan we need to set for this guy and this guy will follow the plan. That’s it. The main thing is get me going.”
This weekend, Key and the Raiders other rookies went through the team’s rookie minicamp. From the first day, the plan they set out for Key began. It involved a mentor.
“Just coming in and getting around vets,” Key said was the first step in the plan. “Me and Bruce [Irvin] talked already. We exchanged numbers and things. We started with that.”
Bruce Irvin may not be the first guy you might think of in terms of being a mentor. Mainly because most see his outspoken social media presence with his beefs with Marquette King and Rod Woodson. But he’s also an extremely passionate and hard-working player on the field and a strong presence in the community off of it. So, what is he imparting to his young protege?
“How to be a pro,” said Key, who pointed specifically to on-field help with pass rush, but it goes beyond that. The two of them are both from the Atlanta area, so Key knows of Irvin fairly well and the long road he took to the pros.
For those who are unfamiliar, Irvin dropped out of high school his junior year and got his GED. He then went the Junior College route, first attending Butler Community College in Kansas and then Mt San Antonio Junior College in Southern California. He then transferred to West Virginia. From Georgia to Kansas to California to West Virginia is quite a path to the pros.
Irvin was selected 15th overall by the Seahawks. Undoubtedly he had every team probing him about why he dropped out of high school and attended two different Junior Colleges leading to a rather unconventional path to becoming one of the top prospects in the draft.
For Irvin’s part, he could point to three years of outstanding play and being a solid teammate since his hard times. And that was plenty for the Seahawks. Key doesn’t have that. And so the concerns are still fresh.
“Well he’s not a finished product,” Gruden said of Key shortly after drafting him. “He’s made some mistakes. He’s had some difficult times in his young life, and I know where he’s been for the last several months, and I know what he’s been through in his career. We’ve done a lot of research on him and he has a lot to prove. We have a lot to prove. But at the end of the third round, we feel like it’s a gamble worth taking and this young man has some qualities that are rare. We do think he’s a very good kid so I’m not going to get much more into it than that. I realize we have our skeptics, and rightfully so, but this is a young person that needs some help right now and we’re going to help him.”
The only thing Key says he feels he has to prove is that “I’m not the guy that the media portrays me to be.“
“Just stay the straight path,” Key added. “Talent was not the reason why any of this happened. [It was] 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.”