Manuel Labor

IRVING, Tex. - A year ago at this time, Manuel Johnson's head was swimming. A seventh-round draft choice out of Oklahoma, Johnson went through the Dallas Cowboys' rookie mini-camp and Organized Team Activities (OTAs) just trying to absorb the offense and learn his role.

Like any rookie, he was learning a new scheme, with new plays, new coaches and new teammates.

What a difference a year makes.

Johnson ultimately didn't crack the team's receiver rotation coming out of training camp, and is still looking forward to making his debut in an NFL game. But during that time, he practiced, he worked out, he studied.

Fast-forward a year and the landscape at the wide receiver position has changed. Miles Austin is the Cowboys' undisputed leader at the position, and the team traded up in the first round of the NFL Draft to grab former Oklahoma State star Dez Bryant. At the same time, Patrick Crayton has been a no-show at the OTAs.

According to Johnson, the difference between this season and a year ago at this time is like night and day.

"It's so much easier this year," Johnson said. "Last year, I didn't know anything during OTAs. This year, the playbook is so much easier. I understand what I'm doing now, so instead of learning what to do, I'm fine-tuning it.

"I'm strengthening what I learned last year. I know the offense, but in order to play, expanding what I know."

Like several of his teammates, Johnson said he realized in his first year as a pro that he needed to improve his conditioning and strength. He spent the offseason working with strength and conditioning coach Joe Juraszek and showed up this season, in his opinion, better prepared to compete for a job. He now carries 205 pounds on his 5-foot-11 frame — 16 more than when was drafted a year ago.

"I was here with Joe all offseason," Johnson said. "He has been in the NFL for 13 years, and he's great at what he does. He knows what it takes to get ready to play this game, so when he tells you to do something, you do it."

With his year of experience in the system, Johnson said he has the familiarity with the offense to play any of the receiver spots in the Dallas offense, and is able and willing to play on all special teams, as well.

But the receiver position is crowded. Austin and Bryant are guaranteed locks to make the team. If Crayton isn't traded, he has a very good chance of making the team. Sam Hurd and Kevin Ogletree also have shown some ability on a team that carried five receivers in most games last season. So will there be room for Johnson?

"We're just in OTAs now," Johnson said. "There hasn't been a depth chart made up yet. I can't dwell on what I think I can do — only what I can do.

"I have an opportunity now. I just have to take advantage of it."

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