Positional Overview: Specialists

The Bears have one of the best return duos in the NFL, but that statement will have to be amended if R.W. McQuarters is not part of the equation.

It appears McQuarters' days in Chicago are coming to an end, as the Bears want to shed his $3.05 million base salary. Although he's an electric punt returner, he will be no better than third on the depth chart at cornerback with a good chance of being fourth.

There are a number of candidates on the roster that could handle the punt return duties.

Bernard Berrian may be the first choice for the job. He has speed and moves to make the first tackler miss. However, if he wins a starting job at receiver the chances of him being used in a dual role will greatly diminish.

While Bobby Wade has experience of doing it at the NFL level, he's had little success and has a tendency to fumble the ball.

Nathan Vasher may not only have made McQuarters expendable at cornerback, but also in the return game. Vasher averaged 14.0 yards per punt return at Texas and could fill the role.

Jerry Azumah earned a trip to the Pro Bowl when he led the NFL in kick return average during the '03 season. His numbers dropped last year for various reasons.

The opposition made it a point to kick away from Azumah. Under new special teams coach Dave Toub the blocking scheme went from a wedge to a one-on-one philosophy. Finally, Azumah was coming off neck surgery and didn't look to have the same ability to make people miss.

Azumah will be given a chance to prove he's still among the best in the game at shortening the field. Considering he's in a contract year, he'll have an extra incentive to put up big numbers.

The kicking game is night and day.

Brad Maynard is coming off a career year, in which he netted 38.7 yards per punt. Considering he kicks in the brutal conditions at Soldier Field, he should have gone to the Pro Bowl.

The Bears believe that the 31-year-old still has good years ahead, as they signed Maynard to a five-year extension at the end of the season.

Paul Edinger will have to prove something in training camp to make the team. The Bears have brought in four kickers to challenge him, including last week's acquisition of Doug Brien.

Edinger has fallen on hard times over the last 24 games, converting on just 24 of 43 field goal attempts.

Brien will provide the most serious challenge for Edinger. He's the tenth most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history, but like Edinger, struggles to find depth or hangtime on his kickoffs.

The Bears can lay claim to the best long snapper in the game. Patrick Mannelly is automatic when it comes to getting the ball out quickly and in the right place. He inked a contract extension in the off-season.

Special teams will play a crucial role in the season ahead.

With an offense trying to find respectability, keeping the field position game in their favor will go a long way towards taking the pressure off Rex Grossman.

It will also allow a talented defense the luxury of going for a big play when they've got the opposition backed up against the goal line.


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