Branden Albert hadn’t heard the news about a former Chiefs teammate, Ryan Lilja. So when he was told after Thursday’s practice that Lilja had signed with the Denver Broncos, Albert’s first reaction was to drop an expletive.
“Ryan is a good dude,” Albert then said. “That’s good for him. It’s going to be weird because I did battle with him. I know what type of warrior he is. He’s one (heck) of a warrior, one (heck) of a person. I wish him the best. I hate to see that but he has a family to feed and he has to do what he has to do.”
Lilja joining the Broncos is a double blow for the Chiefs, who early in the offseason thought they might be able to coax Lilja, a veteran offensive lineman, out of his plans to retire. Now, not only will he not be in their lineup, but the Chiefs will have to play against him twice this season.
The Chiefs fortified themselves on the offensive line in recent seasons. They drafted tackle Eric Fisher with the first overall pick this year. They also drafted starters Rodney Hudson, Jon Asamoah and Jeff Allen and top reserve Donald Stephenson in the top three rounds over the past few seasons.
This year, they spent almost $10 million to retain Albert, their left tackle, as a franchise player and signed another backup, Geoff Schwartz, as a free agent.
So the Chiefs have some depth on their line. But they don’t have Lilja’s kind of experience. He played eight NFL seasons with the Chiefs and Indianapolis and made two trips to the Super Bowl while with the Colts.
The Chiefs’ most experienced lineman is Albert, who is 28 and starting his sixth NFL season.
“Experience and toughness,” Albert said when asked what the Chiefs lose without Lilja. “Not to say Rodney and the young guys are not tough. They’re very tough. But coming along with that experience, that’s something we … I’m six seasons in and I’ve got the most games so that’s pretty young for an offensive line.”
The Chiefs were concerned enough about it over the winter that they reached out to Lilja, a Kansas City-area native who played in high school at Shawnee Mission Northwest and in college at Kansas State. They seemed to cool on the idea as the offseason progressed.
“We talked about it,” coach Andy Reid said of the Chiefs’ discussions with Lilja. “He’s a good football player. We haven’t talked about it for awhile. I’m happy for him because he’s a good guy.”
The Broncos have some advantages the Chiefs may not have been able to compete with: a Super Bowl-ready team and quarterback Peyton Manning, a former teammate of Lilja’s with Indianapolis. Either way, adding Lilja is no longer an option.
“I talked to him in the offseason but not about football,” said Hudson, the Chiefs’ starting center. “We texted back and forth. He never said to me he wanted to play again.
“Good guy and good to see him back on the field because he’s a really good player.”
The Chiefs appear content with what they have on their line and already their depth is being tested. Allen, the left guard, missed a couple of practices early in training camp with a sore shoulder, though he since has returned.
“I never had a shoulder injury before so when it happened, I thought it was something serious,” Allen said. “It was a pretty big relief when they told me it wasn’t serious. I want to be out there with my guys and build that chemistry on the offensive line.”
Stephenson, the backup tackle, is out after having surgery on a finger that will probably prevent him from playing in next Friday’s preseason opener against the Saints in New Orleans. Schwartz, who filled in for Allen, is for the time being the top reserve at both tackle and guard.
Reid wouldn’t concede starting line positions to any particular players.
“It’s a long camp here,” Reid said. “They’re the five (starters) today. Nobody is set. Everything is open. There’s competition all the way across.
“Stephenson was doing a nice job. He gives us some flexibility there. We have Schwartz, who can also play and has played. We’ve got some people. We’ve got to get better. Everybody has got to get better.”
The Chiefs are counting on that. But the job might be easier if they had re-signed Lilja.