Preps Talk

Paea earns a share of job as starter at nose tackle

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Paea earns a share of job as starter at nose tackle

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. The first significant movement on Bears depth charts appeared Tuesday with Stephen Paea playing his way into a substantial amount of playing time at a No. 1 spot at defensive tackle.

Paea, projected to be the prototype attacking nose tackle sought in the defensive scheme of Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli, spent much of Tuesdays practice with the No. 1 unit in place of two-year starter Matt Toeaina.

A player earns opportunities with the first unit by his performance and weve been pleased with what weve seen from Stephen, Smith said.

While the spotlight has been on the competition at left tackle between JMarcus Webb and Chris Williams, the situation at defensive tackle has quietly been more of a concern for Bears coaches and staff.

The organization felt secure enough not to use a 2012 draft choice or major free-agency move along the offensive line. But since the end of last season, the Bears have added Nate Collins, John McCargo, DeMario Pressley and most recently Brian Price all with NFL game experience to their mix at defensive tackle.

Paea, however, has been viewed as a key to the future ever since the Bears traded up in the second round of last years draft to select him. And the Bears with the SmithMarinelli defensive scheme do not trade up to draft nose tackles.

They dont believe in big guys taking gaps; its more playmakers putting your hand down, Paea said. His playing weight at Oregon State was 300-305 but coaches want him at 292 and he is now around 290 the weight at which Tommie Harris was at his best.

I can hold my ground and at the same time, they want me to be fast to the ball, Paea said.

Paea started slow last year with injury setbacks in training camp. He did not dress on game day until week six when he celebrated his NFL debut with a safety on a sack of Donovan McNabb.

He never moved into the starting lineup until Tuesday.

Marinellis template for a defensive-tackle tandem was his pairing at Tampa Bay of Warren Sapp at three-technique and Booger McFarland at nose with the ability to create disruption of his own inside.

With the Bears in full pads Saturday and Sunday, Paea did just that, earning a meaningful share of work at the spot where Toeaina has started 22 games over the past two seasons.

I really believe in him right now, Marinelli said. He's really got really good quickness, he's healthy, he's really healthy right now, and he looks extremely fast.

40 Days to Kickoff: Chicago Ag Science

40 Days to Kickoff: Chicago Ag Science

NBCSportsChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting July 30, we’ll unveil the @NBCSPrepsTop 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 24.

School: Chicago Ag Science

Head coach: Shawn Finnin

Assistant coaches: Craig Dovich Vince Patterson KJ Jones Richard Price

How they fared in 2017: 6-4 (5-1 CPL Chicago Great Lakes Conference). Chicago Ag made the Class 4A state playoff field and lost to Rochelle in opening round action.

2018 Regular Season Schedule:

Aug. 24 @ Lindblom

Aug. 31 vs Hubbard

Sept 7 vs King

Sept. 14 @ Harlan

Sept. 21 @ Julian

Sept. 28 vs Marshall

Oct. 4 vs Goode

Oct. 13 @ Urban Prep Englewood

Oct. 19 vs Orr

[MORE: 41 Days to Kickoff - Bogan]

Biggest storyline: Can the Cyclones keep winning in a new conference (CPL Illini Windy City) starting this year?

Names to watch this season: TE Tony Stafford and OL Kam Williams

Biggest holes to fill: The Cyclones will need to replace 8 starters on defense lost to graduation.

EDGY's Early Take: The Cyclones had a historic season in 2017 making the IHSA state playoff field for the first time in school history. With the recent success comes a "move up" to the Illini division this fall. Look for Ag Science to rely on an experienced offense (seven starters) including four returning starters on the Cyclones offensive line from a year ago.

Three questions for Bears OL: What kind of an impact will Harry Hiestand make?

Three questions for Bears OL: What kind of an impact will Harry Hiestand make?

Pre-camp depth chart
LT
1. Charles Leno
2. Bradley Sowell
3. Matt McCants

LG
1. Eric Kush
2. James Daniels
3. Jordan Morgan
4. Will Pericak

C
1. Cody Whitehair
2. James Daniels
3. Hroniss Grasu

RG
1. Kyle Long
2. Earl Watford
3. Brandon Greene
4. Jeremi Hall

RT
1. Bobby Massie
2. Bradley Sowell
3. Dejon Allen

1. Can Kyle Long get and stay healthy?

The expectation is that Long will be cleared to practice for the beginning of training camp, paving the way for him to be part of the Bears’ Week 1 starting lineup (Matt Nagy said in June that Long will be “good to go” for camp, for what it’s worth). Long has played less than 50 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps in the last two years due to a string of injuries, and the 29-year-old underwent procedures on his shoulder, elbow and neck after his season ended. 

Long’s toughness isn’t in question — that he still started nine games last year despite never being 100 percent is a testament to that — but the Bears need him to play more for their offensive line to be at its best. Long’s health, and if he gets any planned rest days, will be a daily storyline in Bourbonnais. 

The good news, though, is Long already impressed his new offensive line coach during OTAs and minicamp despite not being able to do much on the field. 

“He really wants to be good,” Harry Hiestand said. “He’s fun to be around, he comes in the meeting room every day with a smile on his face, looking forward to working. He’s very interested in helping the other guys. I didn’t know that about him. But after I’ll say something, the meeting will break and they’ll be walking out to get a break and he’ll be like, you know what coach was talking about there to the young guys. So that part’s been really good about him.” 

2. Where will James Daniels wind up?

The snap assumption — pun intended — when the Bears drafted Daniels in the second round was that he’d play center and Cody Whitehair would shift over to left guard, where he played in college. But the Bears quickly quashed that theory, with Ryan Pace telling the media shortly after drafting Daniels that the Iowa product would begin his pro career practicing as a guard and cross-training at center. 

Daniels, indeed, worked at both positions during OTAs and minicamp, and trying to read any tea leaves from non-padded practices for offensive linemen can be a bit of a stretch. So we’ll get a good idea of where the Bears envision Daniels’ long-term position during training camp practices and then, more importantly, in preseason games. 

Wherever the 20-year-old Daniels winds up, though, the Bears are confident they added a solid piece to protect Mitch Trubisky and pave the way for Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. 

“The benefit of having a guy like James Daniels, he’s versatile, he can play different positions,” Nagy said in May. “So (we’re) able to let him come in here and play guard and see what he can do, learn from the other guys, let Harry teach these guys the technique.”

3. Can Charles Leno keep growing under Harry Hiestand?

Pro Football Focus ranked Leno as the 15th best tackle in the NFL in 2017, while Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 rankings slotted him 20th among left tackles. Somewhere in that range probably seems right — Leno is a solid player but not among the best tackles in the league.

And here’s the thing: That’s fine. Leno’s four-year contract carries an average annual salary of $9.25 million, which ranks 16th among tackles. Ryan Pace believed in Leno’s upside when he signed him to that deal last August, and if Hiestand — who never coached a game without a future first-round pick at left tackle in six years at Notre Dame — can help Leno realize that potential, the Bears will have an absolute bargain at left tackle for years to come. 

“He’s going to push us,” Leno said. “He’s going to make sure we’re working every single day. Everybody’s coming to work every single day grinding, trying to get better at something, whether it’s putting your hands inside, or hands up, whatever it may be, you’re getting better at something. He’s pushing us to do that. so that just makes us better.”

Even if Leno doesn’t hit that upside and maintains being “solid” or “fine” or whatever you want to call it, that won’t necessarily be a deterrent to the Bears’ success. Ten of the top 20 tackles in Pro Football Focus’ rankings played for a team that didn’t make the playoffs in 2017 — and while, of course, having an elite left tackle is preferable, the Bears can still be competitive with Leno manning that position in 2018.