Cornering the Market

While most of the discussion in the secondary has been about Mike Green and Bobby Gray competing at strong safety, don't forget the more important battle is at cornerback between Jerry Azumah and R.W. McQuarters.

"We're going to have competition, and at cornerback it's the same thing. Both guys have played well, talking about Jerry Azumah and R.W. McQuarters, and they cheer each other on when the other guy is making a good play," Lovie Smith said.

Charles Tillman quickly earned the reputation as the team's top cornerback, but who will lineup opposite of him when the season starts?

McQuarters has the talent to be a solid cornerback in this league. In 2001 he was the team's best cover man and got a healthy contract because of his work.

However since receiving a five-year deal worth $21 million his production has slipped. Injuries have played a part, as he was sidelined for nearly half of 2002. When he was on the field the reviews weren't kind.

Nicknamed the "Franchise", McQuarters was anything but last year and often looked overmatched. It took one of the worst games by a Bear in recent memory for him to be demoted. Against Seattle McQuarters was beaten for a touchdown, flagged for a pass interference penalty that set up another touchdown and also muffed a punt pinning the Bears inside their 10-yard line that led to more points for the Seahawks.

Azumah, who had been demoted in favor of Tillman after three games, came into his own after replacing McQuarters in the starting lineup.

Azumah finished tied with Tillman for the team lead in interceptions with four. The converted college running back also led the NFL with an average of 29.0 yards per kick return, which earned him a Pro Bowl appearance. The move also worked for McQuarters, who only had two interceptions, but finished among the league's top punt returns and played much better in a supporting role.

Considering the money that McQuarters makes it will be hard to keep him on the roster if he's not starting or willing to take a reduced salary. At this point the Bears don't have enough experience behind him to release the 5-foot-10, 198-pounder.

Fourth-round pick Nathan Vasher could eventually be the nickel back, but putting that type of pressure on him as a rookie when Chicago has a seven-year veteran under contract is unlikely.

There is a chance that McQuarters could revert to his '01 form and Azumah could be a solid third cornerback at a reasonable salary considering he's also a top notch kick returner.

Lovie Smith has reiterated throughout three mini-camps that he plans on using the best options in the return game including starters.

"I think the object of each play is to score, and if you have a guy that can score on a play like Jerry can, you have to put him out there," Smith said. "All the return games are very important to me and we're going to have our best guys out there whether they are a starter or not."

Still the team made a conscious effort to draft players that could not only contribute on offense and defense, but special teams. Vasher was considered among the best punt returners in college football and Bernard Berrian has had success as both a kick and punt returner.

The truth is that both Azumah and McQuarters turned their play around after being successful as returners. Whether or not they will revive that role or concentrate solely on covering opposing receivers only time will tell.

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