The offseason losses of Anthony Adams and Amobi Okoye left the Bears’ once-deep defensive line thin heading into the 2012 off-season. Many fans and analysts had suspected the team might move to select a defensive tackle in the Draft or pay for a veteran starter in Free Agency.
But instead, Phil Emery went out and nabbed three competition caliber players in DT John McCargo, DT DeMario Pressley and DE Cheta Ozougwu. Because competition is really all he needs. After all, the team already acquired their next starter.
The then Angelo-led Bears selected DT Stephen Paea in the second-round of the 2011 NFL Draft, trading up nine spots to land the Oregon State rookie with the 53rd overall pick. The fact that Phil Emery and company opted to not acquire a starting replacement for Okoye tells me they believe that replacement is already on their roster.
Paea played just 10 games in 2011, starting zero. He finished with two sacks and 14 tackles. Here’s a quick snapshot of Paea’s rookie season notes and highlights:
- Was inactive for games one through five.
- In his first NFL game, he posted his first career sack, a safety on Donovan McNabb, and was nominated for Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Week honors.
- He notched two tackles (one solo) and one QB pressure vs. the Chargers.
- He tallied a career-high five tackles (two solo) and one tackle for loss vs. the Chiefs.
- He collected one sack, two tackles and one QB pressure vs. the Bronocs.
- And he registered one tackle and one tackle for loss vs. the Seahawks.
But Bears fans still don’t quite know what they have in Paea; mostly because of his inactivity in 2011, which Lovie Smith simply chalked up to better players being ahead of him on the Depth Chart.
“He has no problems injury-wise,” Smith said. “We have other players and there’s a rotation you go through. Sometimes it’s hard for you to get an opportunity. [But] I’ve never seen a situation where a player that deserves to play didn’t get an opportunity. Stephen has to just continue to do what he’s been doing: going to work, practicing, improving. He’ll get his opportunity. We’re still as high on him as we’ve been.”
Part of Paea’s limitations thus far may have been due to the lack of a true rookie off-season in 2011, something he’ll have for the first time at veteran mini-camp in a few weeks. He’s certainly one player my eye will be on.
But another reason Paea has yet to fully impress is he is still working through his limitations at the NFL level. Collegiately, Paea was able to dominate opponents with his strength alone, something he can’t rely on in the pros.
Paea set a Combine record in 2011 on the 225-pound bench press, putting up a staggering 49 reps. But in the NFL, all of his competition is strong.
Initially projected at nose tackle, Paea spent some time learning the three-technique with the Bears last year. And while Lovie Smith would ultimately love to see him step into a starting role, it’s likely that he’ll gain more time in the rotation, while initially remaining behind Henry Melton and Matt Toeaina at both the three-technique and nose tackle positions.
"Right now, we're really thin at defensive tackle," Paea said at the Bears’ Brian Piccolo Awards ceremony, of which he was the rookie recipient. "It would be an honor to step in and help the team to win. There are a lot of mistakes that I had last year . . . from watching film from last year's season and just having that chemistry on the defensive line, pressuring the quarterback, and playing our keys right, everything will be good."
Paea is set to make $542,541 in base salary in the second year of his rookie deal.
“I watched a lot of film and one thing jumped out at me,” Bears’ defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said of Paea following the Draft. “They were losing 31-0 to Stanford with nine or 10 minutes left. The game was over. But this guy was absolutely playing lights out. You would have thought it was 0-0 in the first quarter. It was relentless. You can work him to death and he’s never going to blink.”
And all that bodes well for the Bears. With Paea’s strength, athleticism, and football IQ, the hard work should no doubt pay off in spades.