What a Difference a Year Makes for WR

Last year, he was a rookie from a small school not expected to contribute too much. This year, Johnny Knox is in the starting lineup for the Chicago Bears and looking to do big things on offense.

For the second time in as many years, Bears wide receiver Johnny Knox is learning a new offense.

Last year as a rookie, after he was picked in the fifth round out of Abilene Christian, Knox caught on quick enough to catch 45 passes for 527 yards and five touchdowns in Ron Turner's offense, even though he missed the final two games with a sprained ankle.

This year, with Mike Martz installing his offense, it's as if Knox and everyone else are rookies again.

"It's like learning how to become a receiver all over again," said the 6-0, 185-pounder with blazing speed. "Just working on the basics: running routes, catching the ball, knowing where I'm supposed to be at the right time."

But there's a big difference for Knox this time around: He has already proven that he can produce at the highest level.

"I feel a lot more comfortable because I know how things work," Knox said. "I know how meetings work and how practice works. I know how to study for this offense, but it still is a new learning process just like last year for me."

Last year, Knox was a huge question mark. Sure, he had posted some eye-catching numbers in college: 118 catches, 2,227 yards and 30 receiving touchdowns in two seasons at Abilene. But that was Division-II, a long way from the NFL. Plus, Knox was so thin he appeared, at first glance, to be frail.

But he didn't play that way. From Day 1, he flashed soft, sticky hands, and his timed speed – 4.31 seconds in the 40 – translated without a hitch to the playing field. He went over the middle without hesitation or fear.

WR Johnny Knox
AP Images: Nam Y. Huh

This offseason, with last year's starter, Earl Bennett, slowed a bit following arthroscopic knee surgery, Knox has been taking most of his reps with the first team, paired with Devin Hester in a tandem that gives the Bears exceptional speed and big-play potential.

"Our two starters, I think, are terrific players," Martz said, "so we're getting each guy an opportunity to move up and be counted on. There are a lot of good things going on out there."

And Knox is in the middle of it. Martz's offense is more complicated than Turner's was, with more plays and multiple formations, but it's also a pass-heavy offense that features wide receivers and should provide enough air traffic to keep three or four wideouts happy.

"It relates to my abilities," Knox said. "It's a much faster pace, and I feel like, with my speed, I can develop and make good things [happen in] this offense."

The Bears' offense has been behind the defense throughout the offseason, but with good reason.

"In fairness to the offense, it's a new offense and there are going to be growing pains because of that," general manager Jerry Angelo said on the team's Web site. "It's going to be a process."

While Martz is installing a new offense, the Bears will continue to run the same defense they have since 2004, even though Rod Marinelli has been promoted from defensive line coach to coordinator.

"Defensively, we've been playing the same system for a long time," Angelo said. "We're doing some different things this year with Coach Marinelli, but basically it's the same scheme and our players have a familiarity with it. We're also doing a better job breaking on the ball. That's been a real point of emphasis, and takeaways and interceptions are a big part of that. The defense has been doing a real good job. But that's not to say that the offense isn't progressing. It's just going to take more time. I have a lot of confidence in what Coach Martz and our offensive coaches are doing with our players." ...

Brandon Manumaleuna was signed away from the Chargers as an unrestricted free agent because he's the kind of big (6-2, 295) blocking tight end that Martz values in his offense. But Manumaleuna hasn't participated in minicamp or OTAs, as he continues his rehab from arthroscopic knee surgery.

"It's frustrating because it's a new team," he said. "You want to win the trust of your teammates. It's frustrating not to be out there with them trying to grow with the offense. But it's just one of the things you've got to deal with."

Manumaleuna says he'll be 100 percent by the start of training camp and, having played five years with the Rams under Martz, he's not really behind in learning the new offense.

"It's the same," he said. "And we kind of ran the same system when I was in San Diego, too. I didn't really get too far away from what he does." ...

Danieal Manning has been at free safety for 39 of his 42 starts with the Bears in his first four seasons, but he's working at strong safety this offseason.

"I'm just getting familiar with being in that position, making calls, making adjustments and, for the most part, just getting your body right, getting all the tools down before training camp," Manning said. "You want to have all this learning stuff behind you."

"Oh yeah, it spins every day. It's like a pop quiz every day you come in. We go home and study like we've got a test coming up the next day." – WR Devin Hester, when asked if learning Mike Martz's voluminous playbook has his head spinning.

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