Azumah in Line for Salary Boom

Jerry Azumah is the only starter on defense whose contract will expire at the end of the season. With a solid year, the cornerback/kick returner will be in line for a big pay raise. The question is whether or not the Bears can match his asking price?

Although the Bears would like to sign Azumah to a long-term deal now, nothing is expected to happen until after the season.

"Yeah, we'd have a lot of interest but unfortunately I don't think it's just going to happen that way," GM Jerry Angelo said about the chances of getting an extension done with Azumah before the start of the season.

Angelo has always tried to reward his players before spending money elsewhere. He took a chance on an unproven Azumah in August of 2001. As one of his first actions as general manager, Angelo inked Azumah to s four-year $12 million contract extension that looked overpriced at the time, but turned into a bargain.

On the open market, Azumah will command a contract similar to the six-year $34 million deal Fred Smoot signed with the Minnesota Vikings this off-season.

Azumah will turn 28 on Sept. 1st and is entering the prime of his career. He's had four interceptions in each of the past two years and is one season removed from a being Pro Bowl kick returner.

The converted college running back still has room for improvement in his game. Defensive coordinator Ron Rivera mentions the word consistency when he speaks of Azumah. Meaning, on one play Azumah looks like a shutdown cornerback and on the next he'll get beat like a rookie.

Azumah didn't have the benefit of a full training camp last year. He suffered a herniated disk in his neck two days after reporting to Bourbonnais. Surgery forced him to miss the entire preseason and a month of the regular season.

In his first game back against the Washington Redskins, Azumah proved why the Bears see him as one of their playmakers. He intercepted a Mark Brunell pass returned the ball 70 yards for a touchdown.

However, his knack for brining back kicks didn't return quite as easily. The blocking scheme of special teams coach Dave Toub focused on man-on-man blocking rather than the wedge system that Azumah averaged 29.0 yards per attempt in 2003.

Without the reps in the preseason, Azumah found himself trying to learn the scheme on the run. Coupled with the fact that teams were kicking away from Azumah, his average fell to 22.0 yards per return.

Toub has adjusted the blocking to compliment Azumah's ability. This year the kick return team will employ more zone blocking, which will allow Azumah to pick his holes.

While there is currently talent atop the depth chart at cornerback, if Azumah were to depart via free agency there would be a sudden gap behind Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher.

Another year of experience should bring Vasher closer to being ready for a starting role, but behind him and Tillman the talent level takes a dramatic plunge with names like Alfonso Marshall and Todd McMillon.

Ultimately, the Bears will either have to pony up the dough for Azumah or they'll be looking for a veteran in the free agent market.

Considering the amount of excitement around a young defense, keeping the starting unit intact will be a top priority.

"If we keep everybody and continue to grow within this system I would love to think we could emulate what Coach (Lovie) Smith was a part of down in Tampa or what I was part of in Philadelphia," Rivera said.

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