At the tail end of the 2011 Scouting Combine, the media were treated to a Q&A session with NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock. Believed by many to be the premiere analyst in the game, Mayock quickly turned the conversation to Oregon State defensive tackle Stephen Paea.
"I guess Paea did 49 reps at the bench press today," he said. "I love that kid. He plays with strength and he ‘s only my fourth-rated defensive tackle. Love Paea."
In the first Senior Bowl practice, Paea tore the meniscus in his knee and was unable to participate in all but one event at the combine, the bench press, where his 49 reps broke the combine record. It was a display of strength unlike anything seen before and it quickly got the attention of all NFL teams, including the Chicago Bears, who traded up in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft to grab Paea.
"He is a guy that is very strong and very quick, two different traits when you are looking at those positions," said Tim Ruskell, Chicago's director of player personnel. "But this guy gets off the ball; he is a high motor player. He was the kid that benched 49 times on the bench which I believed was a record, not just on the bench but he is a very strong player. You see that in his play in addition to what he did."
Paea is a native of Tonga who did not speak English until his family moved to the U.S. when he was 16. Formerly a rugby player, he played just three years of organized football before transferring to Oregon State.
With the Beavers in 2008, Paea earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors with 41 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and five sacks. Despite being the object of every opponent's blocking scheme, Paea was similarly effective in 2009, registering 43 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and tying the school record with four forced fumbles. Pac-10 offensive linemen voted him the Morris Trophy as the conference's most dominant defensive lineman.
DT Stephen Paea
Craig Mitchelldyer/US Presswire
Even more impressively, Paea repeated as the Morris Trophy winner in 2010, registering similar tackle numbers (45) and roughly doubling his efforts behind the line of scrimmage (10 TFLs, six sacks). He again posted four forced fumbles, giving him the school record of nine over his career.
The Bears gave up a fourth round pick to Washington to move up nine overall spots – from 62 to 53 – to draft Paea. It was an investment the team felt was necessary in order to grab a player that, according to most scouts, has first-round talent. Chicago's front office felt his recent knee injury caused him to fall in the draft.
"In what he did from my understanding, he was supposed to have surgery on his knee before [last] season, it was recommended," GM Jerry Angelo said. "He chose not to have the surgery to play the season. Again, a tribute to him and his character and being a team player even though he came into the year as one of the top defensive lineman.
"I think that surgery probably hurt his draft status a little bit and that is just my opinion. He didn't have the kind of workout that most kids have because he had to wait a long time, probably wasn't able to prepare for it like most kids because he was still rehabbing."
The team feels confident his knee will be fully recovered come training camp.
"We had our defensive line coach Mike Phair for that [pro day] work out and we thought it went pretty well," said Ruskell. "He was probably 80/85 percent at that. According to our trainers and our research and the re-check, he is going to be 100 percent so we are not worried about that."
With the loss of Tommie Harris, as well as Anthony Adams being a free agent, the Bears needed to address the defensive tackle position early in the draft. With Paea, Chicago gets a player that can play either nose tackle or the 3-technique.
"The great thing about him. In talking with Rod (Marinelli) in our study is we feel like he is capable of doing both," Ruskell said. "That is a lot of what we liked about him is his versatility. He is a guy that is very strong and very quick, two different traits when you are looking at those positions."
Paea is just as strong in the lower body as he is in the upper body – he apparently can squat more than 600 pounds – which allows him a low base to take on blocks. Typically, it takes a double team to move him out of the hole, which will not only allow room for Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs to make plays, but it should open up things on the outside, where Julius Peppers roams.
When rushing the passer, Paea is more of a one-trick pony, using his bull rush almost exclusively. He won't rack up 8-10 sacks per season but he should be able to get consistent pressure up the middle. Against the run though, he'll be very good. His ability to create turnovers – he led the Beavers the past two seasons in forced fumbles – will also come in handy. For defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, it's his explosion off the ball that makes him so attractive.
"His quickness off the ball, Rod is such a stickler for that, you have to get off the snap and be disruptive," Ruskell said. "It's not about your sack numbers or TFLs; get off the ball, disrupt the run patterns and he has that. Not all those guys that we looked at, especially for the 3-technique had that."
For his part, Paea is aware of the uphill climb ahead of him.
"As far as defense, when you say Bears defense, to be able to come and contribute in the 2011 season, it's going to be a blessing to me," he said. "But coming in, I know my part, I'm a rookie. I'm going to come in and learn. My learning curve has got to go up and my play ability has got to go up. I just have to face adversity and keep going."
Paea's biggest asset is his potential. His football career is relatively young and it's obvious his best days are ahead of him. He improved every year at Oregon State and the Bears are hoping that progression continues. If he maintains his rapid development as a defensive tackle, he could become a Pro Bowl player.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport com To read him every day, visit BearReport com and become a Chicago Bears insider