NFL rookies last year were the players most affected by the lockout. The youngsters never got to work with their fellow players or coaches until the moment they stepped on the field at training camp. As such, most struggled to get up to speed.
That was definitely the case for Chicago Bears defensive tackle Stephen Paea, the club's 2011 second-round pick. During camp last offseason, Paea struggled. He appeared confused about his role on the team and was too easily blocked the majority of the time.
For that reason, the Bears kept Paea inactive through the first five games of the season. That may have continued throughout the campaign had an injury to Anthony Adams not propelled Paea into active duty. The former Oregon State standout made the most of his opportunity, picking up a sack of Donovan McNabb on his second NFL snap.
He was an active member of the roster from that point on.
We caught up with Paea to discuss how helpful it's been for him to have a full slate of offseason activities this year.
"It helps a lot, coming in and already knowing the whole defense," Paea said. "Having that under my belt, that one year, it's going to help me boost for my second year to help this team win. It's going to be a good competition this year."
DT Stephen Paea
No one doubts Paea's strength; he broke the bench press record at the NFL Scouting Combine last year (49 reps). That strength, combined with his squat frame, makes him a powerful player against the run. Yet Paea is focusing more on his ability to get after the quarterback.
"I'm just trying to be a better pass rusher," he said. "Instead of just playing the run, as [defensive line] coach [Rod] Marinelli always taught me this whole offseason, be a better pass rusher. Because that's how you win football games is to stop the quarterback from throwing the ball. That's how you give your team a good chance to win."
It's a new role for him, as he spent most of last season playing the nose tackle position.
"Last year, I was hardly in on third downs because Amobi Okoye took those reps. I had respect for that and this year, if I can have a chance to get in there, I have to prepare myself for the best, so when I get the job, I'll get it done."
It's good that he's prepared, as it appears Paea is going to get plenty of opportunities to rush the passer this year. Okoye left for Tampa Bay in free agency and the front office has not yet adequately addressed that hole on the roster. The team plans on initiating a training camp battle between five defensive tackles – John McCargo, Nate Collins, Demario Pressley, Jordan Miller and Ronnie Cameron – a group that has one total NFL start between them.
The lack of experience at this position is worrisome to say the least. Henry Melton is the current starter at the 3-technique, or under tackle, position, whose job it is to get pressure in the quarterback's face. Okoye filled that backup role admirably last year, picking up 4.0 sacks. It's hard to project that same type of production from the current crop of rookies and also-rans.
As a result, Paea has been rotating between the two positions, serving as the primary backup for both starters.
"I'm backup to Matt Toeaina and Henry Melton, which is good," Paea said. "I'm versatile like that. I can play both. Wherever coach is going to put me during the game, I know exactly, if Matt's out, I can play the nose, if Henry's out, I can play the 3."
Does he have a preference?
"No, not really. I like both. If you're in the nose, it's like show how strong you are. If you're in the 3, you still need strength, but you've got to be more quicker in the 3."
Wherever he lines up, Paea is going to have plenty of chances to take that next step this year and be an impact player on Chicago's defense.
"I've got to. This is my second year. There's no excuse for me not to take that next step. I'm blessed with all these opportunities and I'm going to make the most out of it."
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.