Jerry Azumah went to the Pro Bowl after last season as the NFC's kickoff returner, and his value to the Bears' special teams was undeniable.
But Azumah was also a starting cornerback, creating a conflict of interest. For an offense that struggled to score points, field position was critical, but so was a healthy defensive secondary.
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.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
--Last year's second-round pick, cornerback Charles Tillman, was a brief holdout. Although he went on to enjoy an excellent rookie season, Tillman said his late arrival was a distraction.
"I was a little aggravated," Tillman said. "I was looking at practices, and people being interviewed, and all of the rookies were there, and I thought, 'Dang, I wanna be there.' I was just at home. I'd go work out in the morning at Bally's, come home and sit there and watch TV. My agent would call me and let me know what was going on. The only thing I could really do was wait."
--With inexperienced Qasim Mitchell still working with the starters at left tackle, speculation continues that veteran right tackle John Tait will move to the left side.
Tait has taken occasional snaps at left tackle throughout the offseason, which is just a precaution according to him and the coaching staff.
"Tait's the right tackle," coach Lovie Smith said. "Just like we started. We've been able to get John a few reps on the left side just in case -- as an insurance policy. John will be the right tackle. Q Mitchell has made progress."
--Offensive tackle Marc Colombo did not participate in any of the Bears' minicamps or organized team activities. The 2002 first-round draft pick has not played or practiced since he suffered a dislocated kneecap during his rookie season, and he may never make it back. The Bears aren't counting on him this season. But Colombo continues to rehabilitate, working on his own, while his teammates practice.
"The plan really wasn't to have him out here right now," coach Lovie Smith said at the conclusion of the organized team activities. "I've seen him every day; you've seen him out here every day going through drills.
"We don't know exactly how long it'll take. I just know he's doing everything he possibly can, and he's a bonus if he's able to give us something this year."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "When you haven't won and you want to get to the playoffs, you normally will do what it takes. We have a group of guys that I think will do what it takes, and we think we know what it takes to get them there and they're doing everything we've asked them to do. We like what's going on around here, we really do." -- Bears coach Lovie Smith.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers didn't have a great wide receiver last season and haven't had a true go-to target for Brett Favre since Antonio Freeman's last tremendous campaign in 1998.
However, coach Mike Sherman once again demonstrated the faith that he has in his top three wideouts by signing Robert Ferguson to a long-term extension.
Ferguson, a second-round draft choice in 2001, signed a five-year, $10.9 million extension through 2008. It contained a signing bonus of $3.5 million.
"Robert's a young guy with a bright future, and hopefully we've ensured that that future is here with the Packers," club negotiator Andrew Brandt said. "Obviously, this continues our constant goal of continuity on this team, which has been a priority for a long time here."
Ferguson, 24, had no idea what being a pro was all about as a rookie and played in just one game. As a second-year player, he had 22 catches for 293 yards. Last year, he started 12 of 15 games and had 38 receptions for 520 yards.
Big and gifted, Ferguson improved immensely last season by reducing his mental errors on routes. He also dropped just one of the 66 balls thrown to him and had three receptions for 40 yards or more in the last five games.
The coaches regarded Ferguson as the most valuable player on special teams. He led the team in special-teams tackles with 17 - ranking him fourth among all NFL starters - and returned seven kickoffs for a 21.1 average.
The extension, which had been worked on since early May, was made possible largely by the June 8 release of defensive end Joe Johnson. By dropping Johnson's $4 million base salary and putting off a $3.25 million cap hit until next season, the Packers freed enough cap room to sign Ferguson and quarterback Tim Couch.
"Everything is dictated by cap room," Brandt said. "It's a double-edged sword, and we're going to pay the piper on his release next year, but we wanted to be smart with the room it created. It allowed us to pursue Tim Couch, and it allowed us to be proactive with (Ferguson's) extension before the season."
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
--Center Scott Wells, a seventh-round pick from Tennessee, was the only offensive player that the Packers selected in the draft in April.
After a pair of minicamps, the Packers like what they see.
"He's a good football player," director of pro personnel Reggie McKenzie said. "I just think he has an understanding of the game. That entails all. He understands leverage. He understands hands. He takes coaching. All the intangibles that you want."
Wells alternated between center and left guard during the June minicamp. He will be competing against veteran Grey Ruegamer for a backup job.
At 6-2 and 300, Wells is barely adequate size for a center and undersized for a guard. However, he is not lacking in strength.
"The only thing that will be a disadvantage is his length," McKenzie said. "But he's pretty strong."
--Free agent Tony Donald, one of the Packers' 10 contributions to NFL Europe League, made the all-spring football league team at tight end. When training camp starts in July he will be battling for the No. 3 job with former Cardinal Steve Bush behind Bubba Franks and David Martin.
"I'm encouraged to see the way he played over there," director of pro personnel Reggie McKenzie said.
Donald had 30 catches in the 10-game season for an 11.8 average and four touchdowns.
--Former tight end Mark Chmura, whose Packers career ended with a neck injury and an accusation of sexual assault of a minor, has had discussions with ESPN radio's Milwuakee affiliate to provide commentary for a Sunday morning football show (from Packer Report).
QUOTE TO NOTE: "My focus going into camp is on staying at Green Bay and giving the coaches a reason to keep me around. I know what I'm up against; they're not keeping me in the dark, and that's a comforting feeling, to an extent." - Backup QB Craig Nall.
Starting middle linebacker E.J. Henderson's turbulent offseason continued last week when he was found guilty of drunken driving in Harford County, Md. district court stemming from an arrest last fall.
He was sentenced to two years probation and ordered to pay about $1,000 in fines and court costs.
Fortunately for the Vikings and Henderson, the judge in the case waived the usual punishment of not being able to leave the state. The judge said Henderson could leave for employment purposes.
Henderson still could be charged in a separate incident involving a June 6 fight outside a downtown Minneapolis bar.
The Vikings are standing behind Henderson, the talented second-year pro who has taken over for Greg Biekert, the respected veteran who retired after last season.
"If I didn't think E.J. was ready for this, then I would have brought in a free agent linebacker," coach Mike Tice said. "Is E.J. as experienced and as intelligent a football player as Greg Biekert? No. I think we'd be insulting Greg if we said that. Is he faster and quicker than Greg Biekert was last year? Yeah. Is he more instinctive? I don't know, but I think we're going to pass the baton to him, and hopefully he will be able to step up to the challenge."
Tice did sign veteran linebacker Keith Newman. Newman can play middle linebacker, but Tice said his primary role would be to back up strong-side linebacker Chris Claiborne.
Of course, considering Henderson's off-field problems, Newman is a good insurance policy at middle linebacker.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
--QB Daunte Culpepper enters the 2004 season second on the Vikings' career list for most games with a quarterback rating of 100 or more. He has 19. Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton is first with 37. Culpepper has a 15-4 record when posting a QB rating of at least 100.
--In 2003, C Matt Birk moved into second place on the Vikings' career list of consecutive games started by centers. He is at 64 and counting. Unfortunately, he's about 11 seasons behind the all-time leader, Mick Tingelhoff, who started 240 consecutive games.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "My biggest strength I would say is my tackling." -- CB Antoine Winfield, whom coach Mike Tice already has crowned as his "shutdown" corner.