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Dustin Keller focuses on the little things as he prepares to return to the NFL

The veteran tight end lost the entire 2013 due to injury and now faces questions in free agency.

Scott Halleran

One year ago, Dustin Keller was choosing between the Dolphins and Jets as the "better fit" for his talents. This year, he's hoping some team extends an offer.

While it's a fairly safe bet that the veteran tight end will land with a team come training camp, nothing is certain in the NFL. And after losing a full season due to an ACL tear, there's nothing guaranteed for Keller, a player with previous injury concerns who will turn 30 during the 2014 season. He's proven productive in the past, but the NFL isn't exactly a league built on loyalty.

Keller said he's coming back better than ever, a common quote from players in rehab, but the Purdue product says he's doing the "little things" that should not only prevent future injury, but make him a stronger player overall. We recently spoke with Keller about the physical and emotional toll of losing a year and how he feels about the future.

You've enjoyed some productive years in the NFL and then you lose a season. Do you start to think about your career at that point in terms of what you've accomplished and what's in front of you?

Yeah. As far as the NFL dream, I feel like I've had a pretty decent career. I don't feel like I've accomplished what I wanted to in my career. There's still some things that I want to get done, and I know that I can do and I know that I'm on pace to get back to doing. But right now it's just about doing the little things. It's the hard little work that no one's going to know that I had to go through to get to playing really good football.

When the Swearinger hit happened, how bad did it seem to you at the moment?

I knew it was an ACL and I figured it was basically torn. And it was. You could just feel it when everything came out of place and everything was gone. The doctors came out on the field to get it back in place. It was rough. It was rough out there. It wasn't as painful during the time as I thought it was going to be, but it wasn't enjoyable. It's been a lot of work ever since that moment. I've gone back to the basics, and I think I'm going to be able to come back a better player.

A better player in what way?

I think it's just getting back to the little things. When I was playing before, I had a lot of training where I was adding a lot of strength to the function. I wasn't as functional of a player as I could be. I've learned a lot of this stuff about why I was susceptible to injuries. I mean, that hit that I took will be a knee injury to anybody when you have a hit to the knee that you don't see coming. But I've done so many things now to prevent an injury and get myself moving more efficiently that I think I'll be able to come back more explosive and faster. In a little bit of time, I think I'll be able to be that player.

Where are you at in the timeline you were given to come back?

I'm definitely on schedule. The original schedule they made for me was to be ready to play when the season starts. I think I'll be ready to go a little bit before that. It's just a matter of doing the little things I have to do every single day. There's so many things that can set you back, but I'm on top of this. I can't imagine too many people who've done this rehab who've done more for their leg than I have.

You've mentioned doing the little things a few times already. What are some of those details?

A lot of people, I think, when they come back from injuries like this, they go to a physical therapist or PT or whatever, and they do the work on their legs. But it just can't stop there. You have to keep working when you're home. For me, I'm always working on my flexing and extension and working the strength at all times. If you go a whole day without doing something, that's a setback. Right now I'm in Arizona working out. There's a lot of stuff I have to do before I even start running, and it's going to help me out in the long run. I'm all in when it comes to this.

What's the mental side of all of this? When you lose a full season, I'm sure there are some low points, like anyone would feel in that situation.

SB Nation NFL

Yeah, definitely. You hit multiple low points. You definitely have your highs, but anybody who tells you there's no lows is fooling himself. But you can just imagine all of the stuff -- the pain when you wake up in the morning when the blood rushes to your knee every single morning for the first few months. You know you're going to deal with that every day, and that's just the first part. But that's just the physical pain.

No one ever really thinks about the family. I mean, before this happened, I was able to grab my daughter, go on walks with my family and my wife, and all of that. Then it's just taken from you. I was bedridden for months. You can't do anything. That's one of the tougher parts, really. The physical stuff, the guys can handle that. But it definitely takes a toll on your family as well.

I take it that you guys processed that together along the way.

Yeah, it was very hard. My wife knew going into it that it was going to be hard on me, but that it was going to be almost as tough on her. That's every single day that she doesn't have as much help from me. I'm just sitting there in the bed and, if I'm not on crutches, I'm trying to find the next spot where I can sit down for the first few months. That's hard to deal with.

What do you learn about yourself in this whole process?

There's one thing that I'm kind of grateful for in this whole thing. Whenever this happened, I went to Minnesota and that's where I was doing all of my rehab and my family came with me. Obviously I had long days doing my rehab and stuff, but my daughter at the time was eight months old and now she's 15 or 16 months old. I got to spend so much more time with her and see her grow up so much more than if I had been in that locker room spending 13 or 14 hours a day there. From that respect I feel blessed that I was able to spend so much more time with her. Most guys wouldn't be able to spend that time.

I'm more of a family man than I ever realized. That was the best thing to come from all of this. But like I said before, it's a clean slate for me to start over. All of the training that I thought I knew a lot about before, I've just learned a lot more about my body, about nutrition and that will help me take a lot better care of myself now.

Was there a moment when you questioned your commitment to or love for the game?

That's a hard question to answer. Obviously I still love this game. When something like that happens, it's devastating. You never want to have to deal with this or deal with an injury like that ever again. It took a whole season away from me, almost 11 or 12 months away from me. I wouldn't wish that on anybody. But it's part of the game. It's not something that I'm going to be flinching when I get hit again or something. It was a fluke thing, and it's one of those once-in-a-season things.

Has there been any movement for you in terms of teams interested, or is that going to be after the draft?

I definitely have some teams that are interested right now, and I may start getting involved in that process. The main thing is getting healthy, and I'm definitely there. I can run. I can work now. I'll be ready to go for the season, so I'll start looking into that stuff. But my health was the most important thing for me to focus on and make sure I'm coming back 100 percent. So there are teams that have showed some interest, but we'll see what happens in the next few weeks or months.