Insider Blog: Full Circle

Posted Mar 16, 2010

The one who got away? Ryan Lilja is back in Kansas City

Six seasons ago, a local prospect faced an uphill battle to earn a roster spot while competing against arguably the best guard tandem in NFL history. This player was an undrafted rookie, and like so many who bare that resume, things didn’t work out for him…in Kansas City.


Ryan Lilja prepped on the Kansas side of the state line (Shawnee Mission Northwest High School) and played collegiately at both Coffeyville (KS) Community College and Kansas State, instantly making him a long shot rookie worth following during the 2004 training camp. Lilja’s performance in River Falls was solid for an undrafted player, but not good enough to earn a permanent position on the Chiefs opening day roster.


In the final round of cuts, Kansas City elected to pull the plug on Lilja. The intent was to sneak the local prospect onto the practice squad for further development, but Lilja would never make it that far. Indianapolis quickly moved to claim Lilja off waivers and the rookie would go on to make six starts for the eventual AFC South Champion in 2004. He would become a regular starter for the Colts in 2005.


Six years later, Lilja boasts a resume that includes 59 starts for a team that won six-straight division titles and posted a 77-19 regular season record over his tenure in Indianapolis. He also owns two Super Bowl appearances, including one World Championship ring. It’s safe to say that Lilja owns the last laugh when it comes to the 2004 final cut down day.


The 2004 season was a different time for the Chiefs offensive line. Even with Lilja’s eventual success in Indianapolis, who could fault a team for letting a rookie free agent walk when you have Brian Waters and Will Shields starting at that exact same position? But when you dig a little deeper, Lilja is indeed “the one that got away.”


Here’s how the Chiefs lined up along the offensive front on Opening Day in 2004:


LT – Willie Roaf

LG – Brian Waters

C – Casey Wiegmann

RG – Will Shields

RT – John Welbourn


There wasn’t any room along the starting line for Lilja, no doubt. But what about the guys who made the roster as primary backups to the above players? Really, those were the players that beat out an up-and-coming Lilja. Get ready, because this list is where Chiefs fans gasp.


Here’s what the Chiefs official depth chart looked like, behind the five o-line starters, on Opening Day in 2004:


LT – Jordan Black, Kevin Sampson

LG – Jordan Black

C – Chris Bober

RG – John Welbourne

RT – Brett Williams


What makes Lilja’s departure even worse is the fact that the Chiefs didn’t even keep a true backup guard to learn the game under the guidance of two incredible veteran leaders.


Bober would end up filling a role that each team needs from its reserve linemen (a la Wade Smith in 2009), but Sampson and Williams combined to make just 21 appearances (seven starts) over a three-year period. Williams never played a down for the Chiefs outside of the 2004 season and Sampson is currently out of football. Jordan Black, on the other hand, didn’t exactly win over the Chiefs fan base.


Ironically, Lilja re-joins the Chiefs today and fills a position which currently has no incumbents. Mike Goff (released), Wade Smith (signed as UFA by Houston) and Andy Alleman (untendered RFA, signed by Indianapolis) all drew starts at that position last year, but none are members of the Chiefs organization anymore.


Other guards on the Chiefs roster, in addition to Lilja, include Colin Brown, Darryl Harris, Ikechuku Ndukwe and Brian Waters. Jermail Porter could also be a candidate to play guard, but is listed generically as “OL” on the Chiefs official roster.


The Chiefs welcome back Ryan Lilja today. Most wish that he had never gotten away.

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