Scouting the Broncos: Philip Blake

There has always been a push within the game of football to find ever more rare and unknown players. The 1940s brought an effort to permit black players into the league; as bizarre as that seems now, it wasn't that long ago in real terms, and teams like the LA Rams led the way. The AFL All-Star game was moved in January, 1965 because the original city's hotels (New Orleans) wouldn't allow black players to stay or eat at the players' hotel there. Modern experience tells us that scouting traditionally black schools changed the game. By the 1950s there were teams like the Cleveland Browns who were also scouting the smaller schools and bring in big name players from them.

Now, the NFL is increasingly looking at players from Canada. Danny Watkins moved from British Columbia to Oroville, California, to take part in the firefighter's academy at Butte College, planning a career in that brave profession. Now Watkins is a former 2011 first-round pick out of Baylor who's starting and playing well for the Philadelphia Eagles. Philip Blake, a guard/center for the Denver Broncos, was one of four players from Canada selected in last month's draft. Boise State's Tyrone Crawford (Dallas Cowboys) is a defensive tackle (6-4, 275), as is the 318 lb Akiem Hicks (New Orleans Saints); both went in the third round. The 6-5, 290 lb DE Christo Bilukidi (Georgia State) went to Oakland in the sixth round.

Those four mark a record for Canadian players chosen in a single draft - there is a probable trend there, as the NFL looks farther and more carefully for prospective players. Denver is also apparently becoming a Noah's Ark of sorts - they now have two Tennessee Volunteers on the DL in Robert Ayers and Malik Jackson, two Canadians on the offensive line in Orlando Franklin and Philip Blake, and two Kentucky linebackers in Wesley Woodyard and 6-0, 237 lb Danny Trevathan. They also have two QBs over 6-5, and that's not common either.

Taken at pick #108 in the fourth round by Denver, Blake played right tackle at Baylor when incumbent Broncos center J.D. Walton was handling the pivot for the team. After Walton was drafted in the third round by Denver in 2010, Blake took over at center for the Bears and was a second-team All-Big 12 pick by the Associated Press in 2010 and a first-team All-Big 12 selection by the league's coaches in 2011, also garnering invitations to the Senior Bowl, where he got excellent reviews, and to the Combine (Results: NFLCBS).

Philip Anthony Blake was born in Toronto in November of 1985, the son of the late Llewellyn Blake and Patricia Blake. Although he chose not to fulfill the choice, he was selected 23rd overall in the 2011 Canadian Football League Draft by the Montreal Alouettes. Despite having already finished his degree in sociology that summer, Blake decided to return to Baylor to develop his game before moving to the NFL. It was a good decision.

He had graduated in 2005 from Father Henry Carr Catholic Secondary School in Etobicoke, Ontario, where he played one year of American football (a 13th year of schooling is common in Canada), followed by two years at Champlain Regional College in Lennoxville, Quebec, where he was a teammate of former Baylor linebacker Fred Plesius. He then transferred to Tyler Junior College in Texas and played a year there before transferring again, this time to Baylor, for his final three years. He was there for 38 games and he started every one one them.

As mentioned, he was placed at right tackle in 2009 before being moved to center in 2010; he started all games there over the 2010 (gaining an honorable mention as an All-Big 12 player) and 2011 seasons, holding down the essential job of protecting Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III. Running back Terrance Ganaway (Jets, sixth round) also ran well behind his blocking.

Entering the league as an older player (Blake is older than four of the five starting linemen, with Chris Kuper the lone exception) always carries some level of cachet. In Blake's case, the scouts are getting the mixed bag of an emotionally mature player who is a latecomer to American football, although he admits to watching some Canadian league football while growing up. Like most Canadian young men, he was attracted to hockey, but recognized that his build wouldn't agree. He does, however, have six years of collegiate football experience, and that's going to help. His biggest issues appear to be technique and hand placement, and that's going to take time with any player making the leap to the NFL.

Blake is highly effective if he gets his hands into a defender's numbers. If he fails to, he can be pushed backward. He is capable of re-anchoring, but he has to learn to maximize his technique - he's powerful, but he has 32-inch arms. That's somewhat short for the NFL, but it's hardly the kiss of death. Former Bronco Kory Lichtensteiger is still playing center for Washington, and his arms are only 30 3/8 inches long. Blake is fine there. As far as his ability to re-anchor, that Blake can squat 635 lbs says volumes about his potential ability there. This seems like a mantra of late, but it's also true that he needs to learn to drive from his core muscles. He's a solid run blocker, but pass protection is probably his forte.

Blake's height and weight were listed at various points on the scale as I researched this, but his Combine numbers are a height of 6-2 1/4 and 312 lb - he'd been up around 320 for at least part of his career so far. As noted, he's got a strong bubble and anchors very well - when he's pushed backwards, he's usually able to re-anchor, or he was at the college level. He's not the quickest player, but he does have a nice first step. If he uses it to fire into the defender using his core muscles he's very effective. When he fails to drive his hips, he can be redirected. He does stay low in short-yardage situations, but he doesn't have a history of pushing the pile as effectively as you'd think that he's capable of doing - whatever his age, he's mostly just lacking in pro-level training, conditioning, and the coaching of technique. When Blake's technique is on, he's a very effective player. When it's not, he loses battles more often.

That said, Blake graded out at 86% for his 2011 season and matched it with 86 knockdowns. Surprisingly, one of his weaknesses has been a tendency to let up a little at the end of plays instead of finishing strongly. Despite his history of pancakes and knockdowns, he'll have to be coached to finish every play. I don't see him as an immediate starter, but I don't see that as a weakness, either. He has a ton of potential in both the run and pass blocking games, but he's going to need work. He came to the game late, and it shows.

It's interesting to note that he's the second Canadian-raised player in two drafts for Denver. Orlando Franklin was actually born in Jamaica, but moved first to Canada and then to the US in order to play American football. Franklin may not have the best of techniques, but he's a huge player and tied for the top slot for average running yardage per game with 6.6 yards per run behind the right tackle position. That's exactly what Denver drafted Franklin to provide. It will be interesting to see how that plays out with Peyton Manning at QB.

To finish off his final season, Blake played an essential role for a Baylor Bears offensive unit that piled up 777 yards of total offense and posted 67 points in Baylor's Alamo Bowl victory over Washington. It was a game worth coming back for. Returning for an additional season after graduation permitted Blake to focus more intently on his football skills, and it shows. His invites to both the Senior Bowl and Combine were a testament to his hard work and intensity.

I see him as very much in the mold of San Diego player Vaughn Martin, a defensive end/tackle who also came out of Canada. Martin was huge (around 350) when he first was drafted, but the Chargers had the sense to work with him steadily, not pushing him to start until he was ready, and working to find the player under all that weight. They did, and his play last year spoke volumes as to how well that approach has worked, since he started 15 of 16 games and contributed 47 tackles and a sack. The numbers don't show how smoothly he fit into the defense, either.

Similarly, Blake doesn't look like an immediate starter to me. He looks like a very good player who needs conditioning help, particularly on core training, and some substantial coaching on technique, which Dave Magazu will be quick to help. If he gets and internalizes both, he's likely to become a long term starter - at the least, he can be a high quality backup for all three interior positions. That's a weakness that Denver has had for too long - filling it with him was a very smart choice, and I hope they do as well with developing an offensive tackle next year. We talk about ‘impact' players in the draft, but when one of the starting linemen has gone down, Denver has had no one of quality to put into the lineup. Now, that's an impact. That's changing, and it's a good sign. The right depth player can also be an ‘impact' guy - in this case, it's essential that he is.

Despite the usual flags that arise when an older player has multiple transfers, several scouts had Blake listed as the second-best center in this year's draft, just behind Wisconsin's Peter Konz, who went to Atlanta in the second round. Since Philip can play guard as well as center (but lacks the length or footspeed for right tackle at the NFL level), Denver has picked up exactly what they needed in this player. Sure, it would have been great to get Konz, but I think that Broncos fans will be very pleased with Blake over time. He's the kind of tough, willing, coachable player who contributes in the locker room and on the field.

Blake is also a very bright player, and with the Broncos, that's a requirement at center. Canada has a system of adding a 13th year of schooling following your senior year in high school but prior to college, and that's where Blake started playing center. He then did two years at a regional college in Ontario, added one year at Tyler Junior College in Texas, and finished with three years at Baylor. He scored a 35 on the Wonderlic, and John Elway has extolled his intelligence, football IQ, toughness and versatility. I can't debate any aspect of it.

Even if Blake doesn't start as a rookie, I see him as a starter in training. He'll push the guards and push Walton at center. Since Walton and Blake already have a relationship, he also has a friend in the locker room. Even though all offensive linemen tend to be in competition with each other, they also have a certain cliquishness. OL players stick together. Blake may take Walton's job in a couple of years - that's what he's there to attempt to do - but they will fight as teammates. I like that.

This will give you an introduction to the player:

That is from Blake’s combine interview. I also found this from his Rimington watch list:

and a brief highlights video:

I think that you’ll like what you see. I did.

There’s one thing about Blake that’s been debated in the reporting - he was dunned in his scouting reports as far as pulling goes, and he was criticized as having slow feet. I haven’t seen that - actually, he seems fairly smooth when pulling. It’s fair to say, though, that he sometimes struggles to find and maintain his target on the second level. Part of that is that he was in an up-tempo system at Baylor that didn’t suit him as well as it might. He does have a nice shotgun snap, and seems to have no trouble with the QB under center, either. The basics are there - skill, versatility, toughness, a willingness to be coached, and the raw power to turn into a quality NFL starter. Some sources, despite the debate on his footwork, specifically mentioned his fit for a zone blocking team.

Now starts the real hard work. Welcome to Denver, Philip. You’re going to love being a part of Broncos Country.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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