With the 2010 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Before the 2011 scouting combine begins on Feb. 24, we'll be taking a closer look at the 40 draft-eligible players who may be the biggest difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue our series with Oregon State defensive tackle Stephen Paea. The 2010 Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year was born in New Zealand and grew up in Tonga. He dreamed of being a rugby star, but switched his allegiances to a different sport with a funny-looking ball when he came to America at the age of 16. In three years at Oregon State, Paea finished with 127 tackles (56 solo), nine forced fumbles, 29.5 tackles for loss and 14 quarterback sacks.
Pros: Paea blasts off the snap with aggresive and natural run-pursuit ability, and though he isn't a particularly quick runner, he pursues from side-to-side with surprising agility. Great stack-and-shed player who can ride guards and tackles back, and shoot off blocks to get to the ballcarrier -- this is where his formidable strength plays a part. Hustles from snap to whistle and will do everything possible to make a stop. Dominant when slanting to get past single blockers.
His quickness at the start of his motion allows him to shoot through slide protection; it's tough to get him moving one way or another off a single-team zone slide since he's always pushing forward. Gets past double teams with pure strength once in a while, though he's more adept at using a swim move on one blocker and getting by quickly. Good change-of-direction sense -- Paea will occasionally get blocked out of a play, but he's heady enough to wait for the running back to come to him and he's very good at "re-engaging" after a block. Tackles with good form and avoids going for the kill shot (and subsequent whiff).
Cons: He's much more explosive inside than outside; Paea doesn't possess an outside pass rushing move, though he could be taught to be scary in various stunts and loops in the right defense. And as strong as he is, Paea's a bit of a bull in a China shop at times -- his non-stop motor occasionally leads to car crashes with his teammates and a tendency to get pushed out of the play. He reminds me of Gerald McCoy(notes) in that his strength doesn't prevent him from bring ridden out of a play at times -- he can get washed out sideways by a double-team. Paea suffered a torn MCL early in the Senior Bowl practice week, which ended what could have been a dominant showing.
Conclusion: As dominant as Paea can be as a three-tech at times, I think he could make even more of a difference at the NFL level as a smaller one-tech tackle who occasionally heads up right over center. When in these positions, he's a nightmare for any center to deal with -- his impressive strength and desire to bounce off initial blocks become more obvious advantages.
At 6-foot-1 and 295 pounds, Paea doesn't project naturally as an inside tackle, but the Cowboys have benefitted greatly by thinking outside the box with Jay Ratliff(notes), and I think Paea could have a similar impact with another hybrid defense. And given the fact that he played just three years of football before he signed with Oregon State in 2008, Paea hasn't reached his ceiling yet.
About the knee -- Mike Mayock of the NFL Network has reported that Paea still may have a chance to participate in Combine drills, which would help him immensely.
NFL Comparison: Jay Ratliff, Dallas Cowboys
More Shutdown 40
#40 -- Rodney Hudson, OG, Florida State | #39 - Luke Stocker, TE, Tennessee
| #38 - Phil Taylor, DT, Baylor | #37 - Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas | #36 -- Leonard Hankerson, WR, Miami | #35 -- Danny Watkins, OL, Baylor