R.W. McQuarters presented the Bears with a similar dilemma last season. He began the season as a starter at cornerback. And although he eventually wound up playing nickel behind Azumah and rookie Charles Tillman, McQuarters was probably the team's most valuable non-starter. He also took on the punt-return duties, providing a boost to that unit.
The Bears and new special-teams coordinator Dave Toub face the same conflict this season.
"We've got two great guys," said Toub, John Harbaugh's special-teams assistant with the Eagles the past three years. "They're going to be a big part of it. Those two are our starters."
But they could have some competition this season, and it would please the coaching staff if Azumah and McQuarters didn't have to perform double duty on a regular basis. Two rookies, third-round wide receiver Bernard Berrian and fourth-round cornerback Nathan Vasher will be auditioned, and veteran free agent wide receivers Darryl Jones and Ahmad Merritt could also be factors. Merritt lost the kick-return job to Azumah last season.
"Ideally you don't want a guy who's out there playing 60-70 reps a game also playing another 20 reps on teams," Toub said. "That's not a perfect situation. But if you can steal a few downs with those guys when they're fresh and get them out there in practice and coming to your meetings, being part of special teams, that's all part of making you better."
Having Azumah and McQuarters handling the ball on returns makes the Bears better.
Head coach Lovie Smith says scoring touchdowns is the name of the game. He has promised to utilize whoever he needs to get the ball in the end zone as often as possible, which means Azumah and McQuarters will probably return to the return game.