Bears draft Stephen Paea, Chris Conte
LAKE FOREST -- Having already worked to solidify the offensive line, the Chicago Bears turned their attention to defense during the NFL draft on Friday, using a second-round pick on Oregon State defensive tackle Stephen Paea and a third-rounder to pick up California safety Christopher Conte.
The selection of Paea gave the team a prospect initially rated a potential late first-round talent before a knee injury dropped his stock. The addition of Conte, meanwhile, came as somewhat of a head-scratcher because he was projected in some circles to go undrafted, and as a draft sleeper in others.
General manager Jerry Angelo, who traded away a fourth-round pick to move up nine spots in the second round to select Paea, said the Bears are emphasizing quality over quantity in this draft.
"We're not looking for numbers given the uncertainty right now of when the offseason program starts," Angelo said. "We want to make sure we get players who are as prepared to play as they can be and have a real good role and fit for us. We felt that with Conte, and obviously with Stephen Paea."
Similar to the circumstances tied to the botched trade with the Baltimore Ravens Thursday that ended with the team still landing offensive tackle Gabe Carimi , it appears the Bears -- in hot pursuit of a defensive tackle -- became antsy that another club would land a player they had targeted entering the draft.
Nine picks ahead of where the Bears were slated to pick, the New York Giants swooped in at 52 and grabbed North Carolina defensive tackle Marvin Austin, whom Chicago had expressed strong interest in before the draft.
Immediately after that pick, the Bears announced they had brokered a second-round swap with the Redskins -- who were sitting at 53 -- to move up nine slots to get into position to acquire Paea. The Bears gave up a fourth-round selection (147) in the swap.
"He compared favorably [to Austin] because of the versatility of this guy," said Tim Ruskell, Bears director of player personnel. "Quickness off the ball, [defensive line coach] Rod [Marinelli] is such a stickler for that. You've got to get off the snap and be disruptive. It's not about what the sack numbers are and [tackles for lost yardage]. Get off the ball, disrupt the run patterns. He has that. Not all those guys we looked at, especially for the three-technique [defensive tackle position] had that."
Angelo admitted the Bears were interested in acquiring Austin at first. Once the Giants took him, the Bears knew they had to make a move for Paea.
"You read the tea leaves right," Angelo said. "We had the opportunity to make a move earlier, but it would have cost us more. Once one [defensive tackle] went, we got on the phones, and we were able to get that done."
In Paea and first-rounder Carimi, the Bears feel they landed a couple of the draft's most talented players at their positions. But more importantly, they could potentially contribute heavily as rookies. Paea was widely considered a mid to late first-round pick before he tore the lateral meniscus in his right knee at a Senior Bowl workout in January.
The Bears say they're comfortable that Paea's knee, which was "scoped" according to Ruskell, won't pose any future issues. Paea said he's "100 percent and ready to roll." Perhaps even more encouraging for the Bears is how Paea fits the defensive scheme.
Because of his strength (he bench pressed 225 pounds 49 times at the NFL combine) and quickness (4.9 40-yard dash) Paea possesses the versatility to play both the three-technique and the nose in Chicago's 4-3 defense.
Paea started 37 of 38 games at Oregon State, racking up 129 tackles, 14 sacks for losses of 100 yards and 30.5 tackles for lost yardage, in addition to five quarterback pressures and nine forced fumbles.
"This scheme they have, I will be successful knowing I've played this type of scheme before [in college]," Paea said.
Conte, meanwhile, spent two seasons as a cornerback before moving to safety as a senior. Angelo said the club received a strong recommendation on Conte's behalf from California defensive coordinator Clancey Pendergast, who coached with five NFL teams before moving to the college level.
Pendergast and Bears defensive coach Jon Hoke are friends, according to Angelo.
"Jon talked to Clancey [about Conte], and Clancey had nothing but really good things to say," Angelo said. "We really liked this player. He's a pure free safety. He's got size and speed. [It's] very, very hard to find a free safety. That safety position has got great value. We just felt his value was too good to pass up."
Conte produced 72 tackles last season to go with three pass breakups, an interception and a forced fumble. Conte also blocked a punt and returned it 17 yards for a touchdown. Because of Conte's experience as a cornerback, the Bears are encouraged about his prospects as a cover man at safety, and could see him finding a role on defense as a rookie.
Conte's inexperience at safety leads the Bears to believe his best ball still hasn't been played.
As the Bears conclude the draft on Saturday, the plan is to take a look at some of the remaining prospects at linebacker. Angelo isn't worried about the Chicago's ability to find a player at the position, and hinted the team won't push the issue.
"I like the prospect of what potential free agents can bring," Angelo said. "I'm not as concerned about that, given that in free agency you're able to find linebackers. Are there some kids we're gonna look at tomorrow? Absolutely. But the nice thing about our scheme now is the kids that we look at probably aren't on half the boards in the league because of 3-4 schemes. We're totally the antithesis when it comes to the linebackers to the 3-4 teams."
Michael C. Wright covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.