The four-year rookie contract of Chicago Bears defensive tackle Stephen Paea will expire on March 10. The team's 2011 second-round pick will then become an unrestricted free agent and may sign with any team in the league.
Paea had a breakout campaign in 2014. His 6.0 sacks were second on the team and ninth most in the NFL amongst defensive tackles.
With his combination of quickness and power -- he set the NFL Scouting Combine bench-press record with 49 reps of 225 pounds -- Paea has emerged as one of the most disruptive interior defenders in the league.
Yet despite his strong season, there are serious concerns about Paea's value in the system of new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who will very likely install a 3-4 defense.
It's a case worth careful examination.
Paea was extremely effective on passing downs in 2014, eclipsing his sack total of the previous seasons combined (5.5 sack from 2011-2013). He was quick off the ball and used his upper body to manhandle opposing blockers.
His speed/power combination is rare in today's NFL. Paea is immensely powerful and light on his feet. When he gains leverage, he'll drive any offensive lineman in the league deep into the backfield. His rare skill-set gives him the flexibility to play both nose tackle and 3-technique in a 4-3 system.
Last season, Paea also posted a career-high two forced fumbles and 33 combined tackles, while adding two batted passes.
According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Paea had 47 total pressures last year (sacks + QB hits + QB hurries) in 418 pass-rush snaps. On a per snap basis, his Pass Rush Productivity (PRP) was 8.7, ninth best in the NFL amongst interior defensive linemen. For a player touted as a nose tackle, that's outstanding.
Despite his upper-body strength, Paea struggles holding his ground against double teams. He just doesn't have the girth or lower-body thickness to squat and stack against 600-plus pounds of blocker.
His positional flexibility also works against him, as he's a tweener whose ideal role is hard to define. He can play multiple positions but he doesn't excel at any of them.
Paea played 16 games in 2014, the first time in his four-year career he stayed healthy for an entire campaign.
Hold 'em or Fold 'em:
The concerns about Paea's potential in Fangio's 3-4 system are legitimate. He does not have the size or anchor ability to play the zero-technique, which means he'll likely have to slide outside to 5-technique DE, a position he's never before played.
Yet Fangio's system doesn't rely on the typical 320-pound defensive end. On the contrary, he uses athletes that are considered undersized in comparison to their historical counterparts.
And like all defensive coordinators, Fangio leans heavily on his sub-packages, which often rely on two quicker interior defenders to complement the edge rush.
Consider this, in terms of Pass Rush Productivity (PRP), Paea was ninth best at his position. Yet second best amongst DTs was teammate Jeremiah Ratliff -- 9.5 PRP, which was even higher than Tampa Bay's Gerald McCoy, whom many consider the most disruptive DT in the game -- and Ratliff is still under contract next season. Fangio's sub packages would be deadly with Ratliff and Paea inside, and two speedy outside linebackers crashing the edges.
Paea is not your classic 3-4 defensive lineman but Fangio isn't your classic 3-4 defensive coordinator. In addition, it's very likely the Bears will use a lot hybrid looks, deploying the 4-3 Under system of head coach John Fox, a defensive set that would play to Paea's strengths.
There are plenty of justifiable concerns about Paea's future under Fangio. Yet Fangio has experience developing systems around the strengths of his players. He should have no problems finding ways to take advantage of Paea's considerable skill-set.
Price Tag: Paea made $1.17 million in 2014. Marcell Dareus of the Buffalo Bills, who led all DTs in sacks last year (10.0), makes $5 million per season. Paea won't command that much and may be willing to take a small hometown discount.
Estimated Cost: $4 million per season
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.