ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --** Ryan Lilja has started as a center in the NFL. Just not with Peyton Manning.
It's important to note this as a reminder that there will be a transition period for the 31-year-old veteran of nine previous NFL seasons. Lilja spent six years (2004-09) with the Indianapolis Colts and developed into a mainstay at left guard; he shifted to right guard after moving to Kansas City for the 2010 season, then returned to left guard before being switched to center last year.
Lilja knows Manning's cadence, gestures, style and preferences from their time together in Indianapolis, and that will help. Playing center with Manning requires an advanced cerebral understanding; Lilja has the background and intelligence to make as quick an adjustment to making the line calls as Dan Koppen did last year when he filled in for J.D. Walton.
Considering his lack of experience at center, Lilja was quite effective in his 12 starts there for the Chiefs. He ranked 14th among 36 centers according to the rankings maintained by ProFootballFocus.com. He also committed just one penalty and allowed one sack after moving to center, according to that site's analysis. Even with just one season at center, Lilja becomes the most experienced potential center on the Broncos roster; he has three more starts at the position than Steve Vallos, who made his practice debut Monday. Incumbent first-teamer Manny Ramirez has never made an NFL start at center.
Eight months ago, it looked like Lilja was headed for retirement. He had toe and knee injuries, and the Chiefs were winding down a miserable season that led to changes at general manager and head coach. But even after the January overhaul of the organization, the Chiefs were receptive to bringing back Lilja. According to reports in The Kansas City Star this offseason, the Chiefs and Lilja discussed a new contract, but nothing came to fruition.
Four months have passed since that notion went by the wayside, and Lilja wouldn't be taking this shot if he didn't believe his body could withstand the rigors of a season. Lilja can also provide depth at the guard slots, but that's not where the Broncos are vulnerable -- at least not with Pro Bowler Zane Beadles on the left side and steady, precise Louis Vasquez on the right.
Lilja is here to provide another possibility at center, and if he is as successful as the last ex-Chiefs center to join the Broncos (Casey Wiegmann, 2008-09), the Broncos will be ecstatic, and a massive question up front will be answered.