Riders see ‘potential’ for Canadian OL Philip Blake to start at left tackle in 2023

Photo courtesy: Kevin Sousa/CFL.ca.

An improved offensive line will be key to the Saskatchewan Roughriders returning to the CFL playoffs.

The Riders signed veteran Canadian offensive lineman Philip Blake to a deal worth $170,000 in hard money during free agency, adding a versatile piece who could play multiple spots up front. However, the most intriguing possibility lies in his capacity to play left tackle, where he could provide a ratio-breaking solution to a position that has ailed the green and white.

“I think Philip can start across the board for us, to be honest with you,” general manager Jeremy O’Day said in an interview with 3DownNation. “I think that shows his versatility, playing 12 games last year at left tackle, being on the Grey Cup championship team and really being solid in the Grey Cup that we got to see in our own backyard.”

“There is the potential to [start him at left tackle.] Ideally, we’d like our guys that we’ve recruited to come in and do a nice job and then he can compete for another position, but it’s nice to know that we have the guy there if we need him.”

The offensive line has shouldered much of the public blame for a disappointing 6-12 season in 2022, costing the Roughriders a shot at the playoffs and a home Grey Cup. The team surrendered a record 77 sacks — 24 more than any other group — en route to posting the lowest offensive yardage total in the league.

Terran Vaughn began the year as the team’s starting left tackle and was considered to be Saskatchewan’s most talented blocker. Although, he was limited to 10 games due to injury and missed much of the middle of the season, giving way to Andrew Lauderdale.

Vaughn was allowed to walk in free agency following the season, signing with the Ottawa Redblacks. Lauderdale was automatically released after finishing the year on the practice roster and will not be back with the team.

The Riders are hoping that a pair of former NFL draft picks, 2016 fourth-rounder Jerald Hawkins or 2015 third-rounder Jeremiah Poutasi, can fill the void protecting new quarterback Trevor Harris’ blindside. Rookie Jordan Tucker and former Bomber Eric Lofton could also be in the mix, but it is Blake who boasts the most experience at the position north of the border.

The Toronto native has mostly played guard throughout his seven CFL seasons but was forced to kick out to left tackle last year with his hometown Argonauts due to a string of injuries. He solidified the position and earned an East Division all-star selection in the process, helping the Boatmen fend off the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ vaunted pass rush in an upset Grey Cup victory at Mosaic Stadium.

“We’re gonna put our best linemen out there. If Philip’s the tackle, he’s the tackle. If we feel like our American tackles are better, we’ll kick him into guard,” head coach Craig Dickenson said of his team’s decision at the most high-profile position on the offensive line.

“We feel like Philip gives us a ton of flexibility. We watched a lot of tape on him. We had him in Sask a few years ago and that’s a good football player. He could play any position on the o-line.”

Blake previously spent time with the Riders during the 2018 and 2019 seasons, coming over via trade from the Montreal Alouettes. He played just 11 games over a season and a half with the club but left a lasting impression on those still in the building, including Dickenson.

“You don’t really know a guy until you coach with them or coached them, I would say,” the head coach remarked. “We knew right away that’s a tough guy who can play a number of positions. Smart. We were thrilled to get him back.”

The six-foot-two, 311-pounder was selected in the third round of the 2011 CFL Draft by the Alouettes but chose to return to Baylor University for his senior season.

The following year, Blake was picked in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos and spent one season with the team. After a stint with the Arizona Cardinals, he signed his first CFL contract and played parts of four seasons with the Alouettes. In total, he has seen action in 96 career CFL games with Montreal, Saskatchewan and Toronto.

The now 37-year-old is nearing the end of his football career but is still relatively fresh for his age, having seen no game action during the first three years of his professional career before returning to Canada.

“The thing is in this league, in this business, you’re on a year-by-year basis anyways,” Dickenson said regarding Blake’s age. “A lot of these guys only sign a one-year contract so we’re not worried about what he’s going to be like in five years. We want the best Philip Blake that we can have in one year and I think he’s got a lot of good football in him.”

The Riders made major changes following the season in an attempt to shore up their blocking, firing offensive coordinator Jason Maas and opting to let the contract of offensive line coach Stephen Sorrells expire. Kelly Jeffery and Anthony Vitale have been tapped to replace the pair, while new franchise quarterback Trevor Harris is also expected to improve the performance of the men in front of him due to his quick delivery.

None of it will matter unless the team can find a competent left tackle to keep him upright, meaning that Blake’s addition could be the most important of the offseason.

Justin Dunk is a football insider, sports reporter and anchor.