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Updated: August 1st, 2010 11:43pm
Pelissero: Crossroads or not, McKinnie impressing after rocky end to '09

Pelissero: Crossroads or not, McKinnie impressing after rocky end to '09

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

MANKATO, Minn. -- Watch Bryant McKinnie stonewall All-Pro Jared Allen in a one-on-one drill, and you see it.

The mountainous stature. The surprisingly quick feet. The long arms and athleticism that made McKinnie a prototypical left tackle long before he ever reached the NFL.

"There's very few specimens with that size and that feet, that big," Minnesota Vikings offensive line coach Pat Morris said on Sunday.

"Just by standing there sometimes, you can block the guy."

But that's just it with McKinnie. Ask most any NFL scout about him, and you hear the same thing: for all of his God-given ability, he sometimes plays like a guy who figures he can get by on talent alone. The inconsistency can be downright frightening.

Then you watch McKinnie stop Allen in the same drill again, and you wonder whether he's realized he's at a career crossroads, even though he dismisses that notion out of hand.

He's feasting on salads and fruit these days, trying to get down to his college playing weight of 340 pounds. He's trying to become more flexible, which would allow him to better leverage his 6-foot-8 frame.

He's healthy again, too, having treated the plantar fasciitis that spread from his left foot to the right because of overcompensation and was so bad by the end of last season he took a Toradol shot before the NFC championship game.

And while McKinnie says he's over the controversy of the weeks that followed -- his trip to Miami, his Twitter messages about late-night exploits, his dismissal from his first NFC Pro Bowl team for missing practices and meetings, his too-late disclosure about the extent of his injury -- there surely is motivation in being 30 years old, arguably coming off your best season and having people doubt you more than ever.

"He's gotten better and better since I've been here," Vikings coach Brad Childress said. "Regardless of whether he played in the Pro Bowl or not, he was voted to the Pro Bowl last year, which is usually a vote by your peers."

The dismissal cost McKinnie more than reputation.

He forfeited his $22,500 game check. He reimbursed the NFL for $4,285.13 in expenses. According to NFL Players Association salary data, McKinnie also apparently lost out on a $1 million Pro Bowl escalator, which was slated to increase his base salary this season to $5.6 million.

That's real money even for someone who has a lot of it, and the structure of McKinnie's contract ensures the Vikings will be making annual decisions from here on about whether to keep paying him.

If McKinnie's play falls off, the presence of yearly roster bonuses -- $1 million in 2011, $2 million in 2012 and $2.5 million in 2013 -- gives the team added motivation to cut ties a year too soon rather than a year too late.

"Obviously, this season's going to be the key," Morris said. "Everybody, all management teams look at that, to see what happens as you get to that level, when you start reaching your 10th season."

Watch McKinnie some more in this camp, though, and you quickly forget he's entering Year 9.

Childress says he's already "done some exceptional things" in four practices. Morris says the weight loss has made McKinnie's feet quicker.

And McKinnie, who turns 31 next month, doesn't plan to walk away anytime soon.

Asked how many more years he'd like to play, McKinnie said, "Four more, four or five more. As long as I'm with the right team, they treat me good."

The Vikings have done their part, sticking with McKinnie through more than a couple of sticky situations and rewarding his play with a monster contract four years ago.

A cynic would say it's another case of McKinnie getting by on his talent alone -- starting left tackles aren't exactly sitting on the street -- but plenty of people in the Vikings organization genuinely like McKinnie and want him to succeed.

"You always know he's got unbelievable talent," Morris said. "Mac's still trying to work."

When you watch that work paying off, even in the early days of training camp, you just have to wonder if Bryant McKinnie finally is so fed up with being doubted that he'll end up being this year's comeback story of a guy who never left.

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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