Heartland Health Training Camp Preview: Interior Offensive Line

Posted Jul 24, 2012

Three questions surrounding the Chiefs interior offensive linemen heading into training camp

1) Is Mike Mayock’s draft day prediction regarding Jeff Allen accurate?

The endorsement came almost instantaneously.

Anyone watching second day draft coverage on NFL Network heard draft analyst Mike Mayock make the bold prediction.

“He’s a natural pass protector and I think he’s a Day One starter,” Mayock said after the Chiefs selected Illinois offensive tackle Jeff Allen with the 44th overall pick. “In Kansas City I think he’s a left guard and that’s fine because I think he has the skill set to do so.

“He’s a bender, he gets movement in the run game and he’s a natural pass blocker. So Ryan Lilja is going to have some competition.”

Mayock’s prediction that Allen would shift to left guard has already come true. The part about Allen becoming a Day One starter remains to be seen. Regardless, Mayock laid the groundwork for a training camp storyline.

Thus far, however, Lilja has shown no signs of surrendering his starting role and there’s a lot more at play than a high draft pick pushing a long-time starter for playing time.

First, it should be noted that Lilja is the leader of the offensive line. He’s the most experienced, accomplished and respected player in the position group. Eric Winston, the crown-jewel of this year’s free agent class, noticed this shortly after arriving in Kansas City.

“Ryan Lilja is going to be our leader, I think, in that room,” Winston said. “He's a veteran guy that's won a Super Bowl before. He knows how to do it.”

Other items to consider include Allen’s limited participation in the Chiefs offseason program (he missed a good chunk of it with an ankle injury) and GM Scott Pioli’s history of drafting and developing offensive linemen for one season behind an accomplished veteran starter.

Kansas City drafted Illinois guard Jon Asamoah in the third round of the 2010 Draft and had him learn the ropes behind perennial Pro Bowler Brian Waters. Asamoah would enter the starting lineup in 2011 and the Chiefs moved away from Waters.

This year’s projected starting center, 2011 second-round pick Rodney Hudson, was groomed as a rookie by recently retired ironman Casey Wiegmann.

So there’s plenty of precedent that says the Chiefs might have similar plans for Allen, but no one truly knows until the pads start popping.

“I’m always looking for competition,” offensive line coach Jack Bicknell, Jr. said. “I’m never just saying ‘You know what? We’ve got our five guys so we’re set right now.’ Because who knows?

“Let the younger guys push the older guys and we’ll see what happens. Without pads it’s difficult to make any real decisions.”

2) How will Rodney Hudson fare in his first season as the Chiefs starting center?

It’s ironic that an undersized player left such big shoes to fill, but that’s certainly what Rodney Hudson faces following Casey Wiegmann’s retirement.

"He seems to be handling that (pressure) pretty well," head coach Romeo Crennel said. "One of the things that we wanted to see is what kind of command that he would take of the offensive line. It looks like he’s doing a nice job of it."

Wiegmann, of course, played more than 10,000 consecutive snaps for the Chiefs and Broncos from 2001-2011. As impressive as the streak was, the aftermath leaves the Chiefs short on experienced centers heading into the 2012 campaign.

Hudson was drafted to play center, but saw his playing time come at guard as a rookie. He made one start in place of an injured Ryan Lilja last season.

But just because Hudson wasn’t seeing any game action at center doesn’t mean he wasn’t being groomed as Wiegmann’s successor. The two were next-door neighbors in the Chiefs locker room and Wiegmann made a concerted effort to spend extra time with the rookie.

“Casey Wiegmann is a guy that had an unbelievable career, was a staple for us these last few years, a guy with tremendous experience,” quarterback Matt Cassel said. “Now, Rodney is coming up and he’s done a great job so far, and he’s also learned a lot from Casey. I think it was a great year for him to be able to learn from such a professional like Casey.”

Hudson left Florida State as the most decorated offensive lineman in school history. He’s also smart, durable and coachable. The resume is solid as Kansas City moves into a new era at center, but the true test will come when Hudson is barking out offensive line calls in a game setting.

“He’s done a great job adjusting so far and he’s been handling a lot of calls up front, and he’s done a great job recognizing front and blitzes and doing all that,” Cassel said. “So he’s caught up to speed right now and I expect good things from him.”

3) How will the reserve ranks be structured?

Rodney Hudson backed up all three interior offensive line positions last season. He was the only reserve the Chiefs carried behind center and both guard positions.

This year, the Chiefs may be forced to structure things a bit differently.

There are a number of intriguing reserves behind Kansas City’s starting five, though they’re all short on playing experience. It will also be difficult commit just one roster space to a reserve interior player if, as anticipated, Allen and Lilja are both part of the active roster (neither play center).

Darryl Harris has been an exciting player in past training camps, and he can play most any position on the offensive line, but preseason injuries have hurt his bid to make a 53-man roster out of training camp. This will be Harris’ fourth trip to camp with the Chiefs.

Rob Bruggeman is also versatile along the interior and undrafted rookie Cam Holland helped North Carolina’s run game thrive. Lucas Patterson received praise this offseason from head coach Romeo Crennel and there are several other prospects vying for jobs as well, but how the Chiefs construct their reserve ranks will probably be a direct result of someone winning an open competition.

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