Paea appears poised to take starting NT job

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Stephen Paea appears to be the frontrunner to be the Chicago Bears' starting nose tackle after the 2011 second-round pick took every practice rep with the first team on Thursday.

Paea has been in competition with veteran Matt Toeaina, who up until Thursday had received the bulk of the work with the starters since practices began seven days ago.

"I can't be satisfied right now because I've still got games to play, and I need to prove I'm worth it for the job," Paea said. "The pressure is on me right now. I'm just trying to be a better me from last year. Tomorrow I'm just going to try and be a better me from today."

Paea has garnered positive feedback in camp from the coaching staff for his versatility, speed, strength and athleticism.

"As you can see he's been working with the ones for a reason, he's done some good things," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "Rushing the passer, he can play the nose, he has under-tackle tackle ability at the three-technique, and I think he's one of the strongest guys to come through the combine. He can do a lot of things. Second year, high draft pick, he should be ready to make a move."

Paea was banged up for much of his rookie season after he tore the lateral meniscus in his right knee the week of the 2011 Senior Bowl. The injury forced Paea to miss almost the entire NFL Combine, except for the bench press, where he did a record 49 reps at 225 pounds.

Health is no longer an issue, according to Paea, after he spent the offseason going through a rigorous training program.

"I'm in the best shape of my life before a season," Paea said. " [My knee] is way better. I can change direction, go left and right. Sometimes I forget I had a knee problem. I stay on my feet a lot and don't fall down because my right knee is weak, and you can't hold on to the double team and things like that."

The competition between the two defensive tackles was especially interesting because of the tight friendship Paea and Toeaina established off the field, due in some part to their Polynesian heritage. Even though Paea seems to have the upper hand on winning the starting job, the two remain close.

"Matt has been great to me," Paea said. "He came up to me yesterday and told me to keep grinding and that I'm doing great things. Coming from him, he's like a brother to me, and he's been my mentor for a long time. He helped me out. Even AA [Anthony Adams] helped me out last year. Now I'm into the job (and) now I've got to be a better me and keep improving every day. I'm watching film and things like that trying to improve my game and help the team. Me and Matt are cool. There is nothing between us and what is football is football, and what is our personal lives is just that."