The Denver Broncos' starting center was J.D. Walton, but he is out until at least October—if not the entire season—after having surgery on his ankle. Backup center Dan Koppen tore his ACL, so he’s also out for the season.
With their top two options at center out, the AFC favorites were without a solid starter at a key position on the offensive line. While they could survive with Manny Ramirez as the starting center, the Broncos made it pretty clear last year they didn’t trust him, as Chris Kuper was rushed back from injury when Ramirez was filling in at right guard.
It was smart of the Broncos to bring in a veteran player like Ryan Lilja, who is a massive upgrade over Ramirez. In fact, Lilja may be an upgrade over Koppen and Walton—he brings that much to the table for the Broncos.
Lilja has prior experience playing with Peyton Manning, which shouldn’t be understated. Manning has a lot of input on the players that play and he has a vested interest in making sure he’s properly protected. If Manning doesn’t trust you, there’s a good chance you aren’t going to see a lot of playing time on offense.
Manning and Lilja also have a good relationship; there was even a small controversy in Kansas City last year when Lilja socialized with Manning after a game. Lilja retired after a tough season in Kansas City last year even though he is just 31, but it’s probably safe to say Manning enticed him directly or indirectly to sign with the Broncos.
Intelligence and Experience
Manning is a master of pre-snap reads, but that doesn’t mean the center isn’t responsible for assisting him. More than any other position on the offensive line, the center position requires intelligence and experience.
That doesn’t mean Ramirez isn’t intelligent, but football intelligence often comes with experience. Koppen has 136 games under his belt and Walton has 36—that’s quite a bit of on-the-job training that Ramirez hasn’t had.
Ramirez has played in 35 games, but none of those have come at center. Lilja has started 111 games in the NFL and moved to center for 12 games last year, so he has a lot of total experience and some experience at center.
If Ramirez was a young player and still developing, it would make some sense to get him playing time—especially if the team was not a contender. However, that’s not the case here. Ramirez is a veteran and the Broncos believe they have a legitimate shot at the Lombardi Trophy while Manning is still performing at an elite level.
It makes sense for a lot of reasons to bring in a stable veteran like Lilja with Walton and Koppen out, but intelligence and experience are near the top. Lilja should be able learn the offense quickly and it probably won’t take long for Manning to fully trust him.
If Lilja had a weakness in his game last year, it was in pass protection. In fact, pass protection has been Lilja’s weakness since leaving the Colts three years ago.
Lilja isn’t a bad pass-blocker, and he only allowed one sack at center last year, but he does struggle at times. Over the past three years, Lilja had the most difficulty against the Raiders and Tommy Kelly, Richard Seymour and Desmond Bryant.
With Kelly in New England, Bryant in Cleveland and Seymour a free agent, the Broncos shouldn’t have to worry about Lilja much until Week 12 when they travel to New England. Lilja should be better simply because he will not have to face the players responsible for five of his 11 negatively graded games in pass protection over the past three seasons, according to ProFootballFocus (subscription required).
Manning is also an extremely friendly quarterback for offensive linemen because he gets the ball out of his hand so quickly. It shouldn’t be surprising that Lilja was a better pass-blocker when Manning was under center than when Matt Cassel was his quarterback.
With Manning under center, bad pass-blockers look average, average pass-blockers look good, good pass-blockers look great and great pass-blockers look elite. Lilja is at worst just below average, so the Broncos don’t need to worry about him making big mistakes and allowing Manning to take big hits.
Lilja’s strength is run-blocking, but that doesn’t mean he’s a mauler. Lilja is a good fit for the zone-blocking scheme that relies on offensive linemen working as a unit and who are mobile enough to get to the second level. Lilja can move better than many of his colleagues because he weighs just 290 pounds.
The Colts and Chiefs used the zone-blocking scheme and its variations with Lilja as a starter and he did well. The Broncos started a transition back to the zone-blocking scheme when John Fox was hired, but they really went all-in on the transition when they re-hired Alex Gibbs as an offensive line consultant earlier this year.
Gibbs was the original pioneer of the zone-blocking scheme in the NFL and was responsible for its spread. The Broncos hired Greg Knapp as their quarterbacks coach this offseason, who is also a big believer in the zone-blocking scheme.
With Lilja sandwiched between Louis Vasquez and Zane Beadles, there shouldn’t be many interior players the Broncos can’t move off the line of scrimmage. One of the three should also be able to get to the second level to spring whoever wins the running back competition for big gains.
According to ProFootballFocus, Lilja’s only bad game blocking for the run last year came in Week 17 against the Broncos, and even though running back Jamaal Charles is an outside runner, he averaged 4.9 yards per carry running left and right of center (the A-gap) last year.
Lilja is an average to above-average starter in the NFL who will look even better playing between two good players and snapping the ball to a great one. For all the issues the Broncos have had this offseason, the offense shouldn’t miss a beat with Lilja at center.