Landing a second chance in the NFL, Brandon Keith hopes to stick
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Brandon Keith has always leaned on his athleticism to succeed on the football field. He's 6-foot-5, with a 325-pound frame, relatively quick feet and giant hands.
But sometimes that's not enough. Keith, who joined the Minnesota Vikings in May after being unemployed in the NFL in 2012, received a wake-up call when the team who drafted him, the Arizona Cardinals, let him walk as a free agent only to find no one wanted him.
"I tell people, one day the day is going to come," Keith said. "But it's not now."
His day came when he tried out at the Vikings rookie minicamp last spring and coaches, much like scouts at the NFL Combine in 2008, liked what he provided on paper and at first glance.
The Vikings are still searching for their "swing" tackle position, or rotational tackle that can play both right and left sides should starters Matt Kalil or Phil Loadholt get injured. Keith has emerged as a leading candidate based on his raw talent, but he has much left to prove if he's going to show that he belongs on an NFL field.
The question has always been: does he take his opportunities seriously? That doubt was planted based on attitude problems in college, and it only festered following an arrest before the 2008 NFL draft. His plight with injuries was perhaps the final straw, because he never seemed to overcome that final hurdle with the Cardinals.
"The athleticism is what draws us to at least give him an opportunity to show he can," offensive line coach Jeff Davidson said. "We want to give him the opportunity to show us how important everything is to him."
Keith went from heralded high school recruit (ranked No. 2 player in Oklahoma in 2002), to quitting the Oklahoma University football team twice, to falling into the seventh round of the 2008 draft after getting arrested the month before. His most recent stop was the NFL unemployment line, where he stood last season.
"The hardest part is knowing you can play and you don't make a squad," Keith said. "Or you know you can play and somebody's like, 'hey, you're not good enough.'"
"How do you accept that?"
Hamstring, knee and ankle issues landed Keith on injured reserve two of his three seasons with the Cardinals and teams like the New England Patriots gave him a tryout, but didn't want to commit to a player with an injury history and no proven professional record.
"I was like 'what's the deal?'" Keith said. "I was a starter, I played a lot, I didn't understand the situation. But at the same time, I wasn't taking my rehab seriously."
Keith started 11 games for the Cardinals at right tackle in 2011, struggling mightily before a high-ankle sprain ended his season and seemingly his chances in Arizona.
It's always been a push-and-pull for Keith, who still struggled with strength in his scoped knee from 2010 while trying out for multiple teams last offseason.
He dropped to 307 pounds, wasn't taking care of his body in terms of diet and weight training and began focusing on conditioning because that's where he heard all his prior criticisms -- 'you get too tired late in games; you're not in good shape.'
So he focused on cardio, leaving behind the maintenance needed to keep his muscular frame, the one that got him to the NFL.
"I haven't been 307 pounds since I was in high school," Keith said. "I looked great, but when teams are used to seeing you at 340, 335, they're like 'there's a situation here, I don't know if you're on something or if you're not taking yourself seriously.'"
"I was confused. If I was killing it in the workout and mentally I'm still into it," Keith said. "Not realizing after the third or fourth team told me that I need to go back to training, core training, muscle training."
Now, Keith is back on an NFL roster, weighing in around 325 pounds and competing for the Vikings swing tackle position.
There may be one catch, though: Keith has never played left tackle in his life before this summer.
"Never," Keith said. "People think I'm lying, I've never played it. It's more of a mindset, technique does play a big part in it."
Davidson said Keith is not a 'leading candidate' in that terminology, refusing to name anyone. But offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave didn't shy away when asked if Keith was the top guy.
"He definitely is, you bet," Musgrave said.