Much of what has been written regarding the Broncos' draft outlook has focused heavily on the issue of which player the team takes at number two, or whether they trade down and try to pick up an extra choice or two. That’s an important decision, no question. Denver’s offensive and defensive lines need help, and free agency may not happen in anything like its usual manner, so deciding whether there’s a player at #2 that’s worth the pick or whether going for more picks is a better option ranks right up there with the call on 4th and goal with 3 seconds left on the clock - you can’t afford to get this one wrong. On that issue, I found myself recalling a poster that was common when I was in college, and it probably stayed around. It only said,
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil: for I am the meanest SOB in the valley
Pro football is in part about the ability to be very mean very effectively, but to keep it from creating penalties for your team. Denver has had trouble getting enough consistent meanness on the field, and that’s got to be one of the top jobs that EVP John Elway, head coach John Fox and GM Brian Xanders will face. That said, I think that Nick Fairley is probably the meanest sonofagun in this year’s draft, and along with his talent, that means that he’s the best option for Denver. Kevin Vickerson has the skills to be a good nose tackle, but Denver needs the best undertackle they can obtain, and I think Fairley is that guy. If anything prevents that choice, Marcell Dareus is a heck of a second option. He’s more likely to collapse the pocket than complete the sack, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing: lots of hurries is potentially advantageous over a certain number of sacks, depending on that number. Fairley will also get his share of hurries, but has the penetration ability to get more sacks and create more disruption than Dareus. Either one would make the jobs of Robert Ayers and Elvis Dumervil quite a bit easier. Both are also excellent at getting to the RB in negative territory, so I can’t give a real advantage to either man on that one. Again, my first choice is Fairley.
Denver is thin - very thin, in fact - at DT right now. Marcus Thomas is a free agent, and Justin Bannan is likely to draw interest from other franchises at close to the money he was drawing from Denver - he almost has to be irritated at the way the FO has treated him. Given their solid performances last year, I’m not betting on the return of either man, although I stay open to the option. But since they may not return, Denver has to get ready for a tough year, with rookies in the center of the defensive line this time. And that brings us to the 36th pick in the 2011 Draft, and the possibility that Stephen Paea (pronounced pie’ uh) might fill one of those gaps for Denver.
There was - and is still - considerable conversation around Paea going in the first round, more for a while earlier on. That seemed to subside when he hurt his knee, but a record-setting 49-rep performance in the bench press at Combine, even with a 5.05-second 40-yard dash on that knee has pushed him back up into first-round territory according to some draftniks. But here’s the good news - the defensive line options in this draft are so deep that Paea, who NFL Draft Bible ranks 5th among DTs, could drop to the top of the second round.
If he does, I’d expect that Denver would be on him like horseflies on Broncos. They could take a middle linebacker if Martez Wilson drops, for example. The safety class isn’t deep this year, but Denver could go that way. And, they might see some writing on the wall and find the next right tackle, in case things with their own free agent Ryan Harris don’t go well. But if Paea is there? For my money, you don’t do anything but smile broadly and take that pick.
The why of it goes all the way back to Paea’s childhood. You see, he didn’t move to the US until he was 16, having been born in New Zealand and raised in Tonga, and he still spoke no English when he arrived. He’d been a rugby player, a good one who thought of going pro, and still says that rugby taught him the importance of conditioning and leverage - two of the keys to playing defensive tackle, among other positions. His natural build - roughly the size and shape of a Sub Zero and just as hard to move - is 6’1”, 303 lb (he was listed as 311 during his senior season in college) of run-stopping power. He played one year of football as a senior in high school (although he still spoke little English), and then spent a year at Snow, a junior college in Utah to get his grades and language skills in better shape. Snow's Badgers went undefeated that year, too. By the time Paea arrived at Oregon State, he felt that he was ready - nervous, as anyone would be, but ready - for the challenge of playing Division I football. He doesn’t back down from anything in life.
Paea decided to join Oregon State following his lone year in junior college, in part based on the substantial Polynesian culture on the OSU campus. The university’s coaches who had seen film of him playing were thrilled to get him. His college days were a progression of seeing him dominating in game after game, of watching things like a true triple team, a tactic that Pac-10 rivals decided to try when they couldn’t move the man out of their running backs' way (he still beat some of the triple teams). It was also a chance to see how many awards this fellow who had never played football until he was a senior in high school - and knew little of it, growing up in Tonga - could line up in his time there.
Paea was a two-time Morris Trophy winner, and that’s really a heck of a statement. Most of us have complained about the judging process for the Pro Bowl or the Hall of Fame (which are voted upon by writers), and with good reason. But the Morris Trophy is judged by the opposing players: the offensive line judges the defensive linemen and vice versa. Two years running, Paea was considered the toughest DL player in the Pac-10 to play against. He was a semifinalist for the Bednarik Award, which is presented by the Maxwell Football Club to the nation’s leading defensive player. He also won the Pat Tillman Defensive POY honor, as selected by the Pac-10 Conference's head coaches. Paea has also earned All-America honors from the Associated Press, Sporting News, and Sports Illustrated.
If all that weren’t enough, Paea finished the 2010 season with 45 tackles, including 10 tackles for loss and six quarterback sacks. Paea also caused four fumbles during the season and is the new Oregon State record holder for career forced fumbles with nine. He was a monster in the middle, playing at 311 lbs for most of the year. In Mike Mayock's latest prospect ranking, Paea is listed as the 31st-best draft entrant.
Paea’s knee injury, announced on January 25th during Senior Bowl Week, may move him down slightly in the draft: solid as he looks, the lack of time in the game of football plus the injury could combine to have that effect. If the opportunity presents itself, Denver should be hoping for 4-6 more teams who need another position more than a run-stuffing DT. Considering the implications of the mean-playing Fairley at undertackle and the squatty, nasty-demeanored Paea at nose, this is a run-don’t-walk-to-the-podium kind of deal. Two talented, first-round level players in the middle can result in very good things over time. Vickerson is a good player to trade off with Paea - they’re both excellent choices for the nose, but their styles of play couldn’t be more different. Paea has the lower body strength of an oil rig pylon, is as wide as a trailer home, and takes on double teams consistently, splitting them much of the time. Vickerson is more athletic - 321 lb, 6’5” - and has more lateral quickness and ability to drive to the QB. Put in a Fairley, or even a Dareus, and you’ve suddenly turned a weakness at DT into a developing strength.
If Paea is such a talented player, why wouldn’t he go earlier? Well, he might. But as to why he might not, the knee worries some people. You can also try this from CBS:
Paea is a bit of a one-trick pony. He isn't agile enough to put consistent pressure on the quarterback at the NFL level. His ability to tie up blocks in the middle will lead teams to look at him closely over the first 50 picks of the 2011 draft no matter what scheme they utilize.
That’s not all they said:
With Oregon State 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. 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.
That’s the good/bad of the player in a nutshell. There’s something to keep in mind - he’s only played five years of football, and two were at the high school and junior college level. Once he got to college, he destroyed his competition - but he’s not the kind of player who will get you a lot of sacks, which an overemphasis on stats by the fantasy football set has made into a bigger issue than it should be. He’s the kind of player who takes up two linemen, stops the run anyway, and lets your penetrating players - hopefully, Fairley and Doom - attack the QB for sacks and pressures. Ayers is unlikely to be a slouch on pressures and hurries either; he’s top level against the run and he’ll get a few sacks each year. So will the LBs, and perhaps new Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen will enjoy playing with CB and Safety blitzes and (hopefully) sacks as well. But if you have a player in the middle who can make sure that middle screens, draws and middle-of-the-LOS runs do little damage, and who shoves the pile right back into the QB’s face, you’re halfway to your goal. If that player has an explosive first step that often shocks OL players and knocks them back like Paea’s does, well, that doesn’t hurt anything, either.
I'd expect Paea to develop a swim and/or rip move - right now, he’s almost solely a bull-rusher who does much what Doom has done - he gets under the lineman’s pads and rollerskates him back into the QB. He hasn’t played the game long, though, and he can be taught technique. Few players in the game, even at the NFL level, have his combination of upper and lower body strength. He anchors well, can split a double team (or be stopped by it, but rarely before creating a pile with the players, that creates ‘trash’ that RBs find hard to move through), and he tackles well. Don’t look for him to do much backside or even lateral pursuit - he’s not quick enough. However, he’s got a first-step explosion that rocks people and he uses those big 10-inch paws of his to give a violent and often stunning hand strike. His arms are just shy of 33 inches long - long enough that he can learn to rip and swim given time and instruction (the ‘magic number’ is supposed to be 35 inches, but I haven’t seen any real research on it. Strong as he is, does inches in arm length really matter that much? His arms are a quarter-of-an-inch shorter than those of Da’Quan Bowers). You can’t make just any player that mean or that powerful, though. He’ll learn to power through those moves just fine.
When I say powerful, I’m talking about Paea having a 600-pound squat, 500-pound bench press and the ability to churn out 49 repetitions of 225 pounds and then to be disappointed about it. From all reports by those who tried to stop him on the field, his early rugby experience has given him a heck of a sense of balance and leverage that makes him even stronger than his serious weight-room numbers indicate.
A smaller man with excellent leverage can take on a much bigger man, as Doom proves consistently. I once spent part of a week as the ‘bodyguard’ of a Japanese aikijutsu founder, a man of a rank called Soke: That honor is bestowed by a vote of the other Soke in Japan, and the new system is approved or it is not. If it is, the head of the system receives the rank of Soke. He was 72 years old and tossed 6’3”, 7th-degree black belts around like poker chips. He got a big kick out of making them tap the mat to surrender, and if they screamed just a little, that got a belly laugh from him. Leverage is a massive weapon.
But to be fair - in the football arena, if both a smaller and a bigger guy have equal skills at leverage, the big guy is usually going to win. A squatty, wide, big man with huge power, excellent leverage and a stunningly explosive punch and first step is a game-long pain in the coccyx. Paea is young in the sport and he will keep learning the game at this pace. It’s a heck of a thing to think about.
And, there are also the intangibles. You already know that he’s seriously mean on the field, but it’s key to remember that he’s also got a motor that won’t stop. He’s the kind of guy who plays to the whistle and fights just as hard all the way through the fourth quarter as he did in the first. His stamina is remarkable, and he’s a big part gym rat, as you’d expect. His attitude and power got him voted a team co-captain in 2009, in only his second year in the program, as a junior at OSU.
How tough is he? He showed people in 2008 by playing the final month of the regular season despite a painful bursa sac injury in his knee (read about bursa sacs here). He missed the opening series of the final game, and went right back in. The bursa is a fluid-filled sac that helps permit the gliding of the tissues around a joint - planting and driving off of a knee with an inflamed bursa sac is extremely painful. Paea’s attitude seemed to be, So? Lest anyone believe that he’s a run-stopper only, he finished his college career with 129 tackles and 14 quarterback sacks in three years. He also started on the defensive line from his first game on campus.
Sure, there are going to be lots of other options at pick #36. Marvin Austin out of North Carolina, baggage and all, might be a heck of an addition. Austin’s description by his own teammates of ‘talented but selfish’ isn’t going to help him move up the boards, but he’s pleny skilled and has more lateral quickness than Paea. Jabaal Sheard out of Pittsburgh is a fine DE who also plays with good leverage and is fast (4.68) for the position, if Denver decides that they need another DE. He willingly plays hurt, is a team captain and leader and has truly violent hands that keep blockers off of him. If Martez Wilson drops this far, he’s got to be in the mix, too. There are a lot of options for this pick, and it could be one of the keys for the upcoming season.
But if Stephen Paea’s there? For me, it’s all over. He’s a Fat Man kind of guy, in every sense. Denver needs more mean. Paea provides it - and his upside is fantastic, given his brief time in the game. He’s the kind of guy that a team with a mostly vacant DL wants to have.