How would you have reacted? With excitement? Jubilation? The thought of such major upgrades finally being made to KC’s offensive line would have thrilled just about any Chiefs fan.
As we all know, those additions have actually happened in the form of two ex-Chiefs who’ve returned to Kansas City. One of them – Casey Wiegmann – was a starter here from 2001-2007. The other – Ryan Lilja – was originally a Chief during the summer of his rookie season before he was cut and claimed off waivers by the Indianapolis Colts.
Instead of providing us with some certainty about the offensive line, though, these new signings have actually left us here at Warpaint Illustrated with more questions than answers about where the line is headed.
Perhaps the most unusual thing about Wiegmann’s return to the Chiefs is that the team chose to bring in a veteran center over 35 and it wasn’t former Tennessee Titan Kevin Mawae.
It’s been obvious over the last year that Scott Pioli and Todd Haley put a premium on players they have prior experience with. Wiegmann has strong ties to the Chiefs’ franchise, but he has no history with the new regime. On the other hand, Pioli and Haley, plus numerous other members of the Chiefs’ staff, were with the New York Jets in 1998 when Mawae began his eight-year stay there.
Like Wiegmann, Mawae is a smaller center, adept at pulling and zone blocking. He’s about a year and a half older than Wiegmann, but the fact that he’s coming off two straight Pro Bowls suggests his tank isn’t empty quite yet. If the Chiefs wanted to sign an aging center, Mawae seemed like a perfect fit.
So what made the team sign Wiegmann instead? That answer may shed some light on what the team has in mind for him.
The decision could have come down to money, of course. Perhaps Mawae was asking for more than the Chiefs wanted to pay a player of his age. On the other hand, Mawae’s agent has made no secret of the fact that his client is looking for a starting job. Maybe that’s what took the Chiefs out of the running.
In other words, maybe the team wasn’t looking to sign a new starter. With backup center Wade Smith leaving for Houston in free agency, perhaps the Chiefs were simply looking to add depth.
Many have already penciled Wiegmann into the starting lineup, but we have to consider the possibility that starting Wiegmann over Rudy Niswanger might not actually be in the team’s plans.
But let’s assume they do plan to start him. In that case, Wiegmann would presumably line up between Lilja and Brian Waters. That means two-thirds of the Chiefs’ interior line would weigh less than 300 pounds.
Why didn't the Chiefs sign Kevin Mawae?
Does the team really plan to go that small? Couldn’t that pose a problem on the goal line and in short-yardage situations?
The Patriots, with Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, and Stephen Neal, don’t have an interior that small. The Cardinals, with Reggie Wells, Deuce Lutui, and Lyle Sendlein, have a considerable amount of beef in the middle. If the Chiefs do plan to line up such a slim interior, it would be a departure from the norm for both Pioli and Haley.
Then there’s the upcoming draft, which is another factor to keep in mind. It’s been far too long since the Chiefs addressed the center position by drafting a young player. Given his obvious connection to Charlie Weis, there has been speculation around Notre Dame center Eric Olsen, but by no means is he the only prospect worth looking at.
If the Chiefs draft a center this year, it’s hard to imagine them keeping three. So who becomes the odd man out? If the idea is to groom a young player, then having a veteran like Wiegmann around makes sense.
But what happens with Niswanger? Would the team pull their RFA tender, making him a free agent? Would they move him back to guard, where he saw his first action with the Chiefs?
There’s plenty of questions, but few answers.
As a member of the Colts, Lilja lined up at left guard. In Kansas City, Brian Waters has that spot occupied. Will the Chiefs simply move Lilja to the right side of the line? That obviously seems like the easiest solution, but we can’t ignore that Waters has been the subject of trade rumors since his unpleasant meeting with Chiefs’ brass last year.
How does Lilja’s arrival impact Branden Albert? If Lilja and Waters are entrenched at guard, then it casts doubt on the mainstream theory that has the Chiefs drafting a left tackle with their first-round pick. Unless you put stock into the strange reports about a possible move to right tackle, Albert would then have nowhere to move.
However, the biggest questions aren’t about Lilja’s position – they’re about his health.
According to a Tweet from Scout.com’s own Adam Caplan, Lilja was cut by the Colts after failing a physical. For a player who missed the entire 2008 season because of three surgeries on his knee, that’s no small detail.
However, it’s fair to say that some have been skeptical of that report. They point to the fact that Lilja started 21 games for the Colts last year – two in the preseason, all 16 games of the regular season, and Indy’s three postseason contests. Only once in that span did Lilja appear on the Colts’ injury report, when he was listed as probable for the Super Bowl with a sore back.
Then there’s the fact that Lilja presumably passed his physical with the Chiefs. He was also in good enough shape for the team to give him a three-year contract, rather than the one-year deals signed by Wiegmann, Mike Vrabel, Shaun Smith, and others.
But that takes us back to the Colts’ decision to release Lilja in the first place. It’s been widely reported that Indy plans to utilize larger offensive linemen now that longtime line coach Howard Mudd has retired. But would that alone prompt them to release one of their starters? Particularly when, according to many Colts fans, there doesn’t seem to be an obvious replacement for Lilja?
As one of the league’s best-run franchises, the Colts aren’t in the habit of making foolish personnel decisions. Knowing that, logic would suggest some additional factors behind Lilja’s release, apart from their shift in philosophy. They paid Lilja a scheduled roster bonus before releasing him, so financial reasons don’t seem to apply. Injury concerns are one of the only reasons that make sense.
We’ve already covered the size issue, but if Lilja’s injuries have in any way limited his ability, it only exacerbates those concerns. More information on his health status will surely come out, but once again, it’s a situation where the questions outnumber the answers.
Until we get a better idea of the Chiefs’ plans, it may be awhile before we can discuss the offensive line with any certainty. In fact, when it comes to these new additions, it seems like the only thing we know for sure is that we don’t know anything for sure.