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 5 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-foot, 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 One, he flashed softy, 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.
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."
"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."
Running back Kevin Smith has every reason to be pessimistic. He suffered a torn knee ligament Dec. 13 at Baltimore. The Lions traded up to draft explosive running back Jahvid Best in the first round April 22.
But Smith looks at things his own way. He hopes to be practicing fully when training camp opens in late July, and he looks at Best as a complement, not just competition.
Smith, a third-round pick in 2008, had surgery not long after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He has been moving around well in offseason workouts, but only in individual drills, wearing a baseball cap.
Now he plans to put a helmet on again. He said he will tiptoe back into team drills at next week's mandatory minicamp, about six months after surgery to repair a torn knee ligament.
"I'm not going to do much, but I'm definitely going to do some team stuff," Smith said. "This is the first time I've done that. I've been doing individual and just building up.
"I'm almost six months. I'm not even six months yet. There's been a guy that reinjured his ACL. Lord willing, I'm definitely not trying to be that guy. So I'm just going to take it slow."
How much will Smith actually do?
"If I can gauge it, probably six plays — probably three in 7-on-7 (passing drills), three in team running (drills), shut it down," Smith said. "I've got a big camp ahead of me. That's when I can start getting back into it."
How much does Smith hope to do when training camp opens in late July?
"I hope to be practicing," Smith said. "I don't see why I'm not going to be practicing. Put it that way. So my hope is more to stay consistent and keep going and not have any step-backs. That's the tricky thing, because I can run around.
"I just played basketball the other day, and I was pretty nice. So I feel good. It's a blessing, but I've been working hard. I've been rehabbing hard."
Smith credited Jason Arapoff, the Lions' coordinator of physical development, saying: "He pushes me every day. I'm good where I'm at, so I've just got to make sure I keep going forward and don't take a step back."
Despite his injury, Smith has blogged at smith34.com that he wants to "get back into the race" next year with the other running backs in his draft class: Chris Johnson, Rashard Mendenhall, Matt Forte, Tim Hightower, Ray Rice, Jonathan Stewart, Darren McFadden, Steve Slaton and Felix Jones.
"Down the road, they're going to be talking about this draft class of running backs as one of the best, and I want to be part of that conversation," Smith wrote.
At least Smith seems to understand he's not part of that conversation now. He rushed for 976 yards as a rookie. He rushed for 747 in 13 games this season. He has only three 100-yard games in his career. He already had a long way to go to before the injury; now it's going to be even harder because of his knee.
"This season did not go as well as we had hoped," Smith wrote. "I didn't come in and play as well as I had anticipated, and as a team we definitely did not make the strides I thought we would make."
That's a big reason the Lions drafted Best. But Best has said that Smith has been supportive.
"He's probably like my big brother right now," Best said. "He's just giving me pointers. He's just staying on me, making sure I know what I'm doing when I'm out there."
GREEN BAY PACKERS
As much as head coach Mike McCarthy has been extolling a high rate of participation by players in the offseason program this year, the Packers won't be close to full strength for their June 21-23 minicamp.
As many as 10 players who have been in medical rehab mode this spring — among them receiver Donald Driver, linebacker Nick Barnett and cornerback Al Harris — aren't expected to practice.
Add to that extensive no-dress list defensive end Johnny Jolly and possibly safety Atari Bigby.
McCarthy said June 16 during organized team activities that he has excused Jolly from the mandatory minicamp. The news came two days after Jolly signed his one-year tender as a restricted free agent.
Rather than get Jolly up to speed in what will be a review of the entire playbook that was installed during the OTAs, the team feels the incumbent starter would be better served to stay away from football as he awaits going to trial on a felony drug possession charge. The repeatedly delayed start of the trial is scheduled for July 30, the same day Green Bay's players are to report for training camp.
"There's a lot going on, and he needs to focus and make sure he has everything in line," McCarthy said. "These decisions that are going to be made legally will affect every aspect of his life, most importantly his personal life and then his professional life."
Even if he's not convicted, Jolly could be suspended by the league for violating its personal-conduct policy.
The Packers presumably saved themselves another potential headache when cornerback Tramon Williams, a restricted free agent, also signed his one-year tender by June 15.
Any unsigned restricted free agents past that deadline are liable to have their original qualifying offers reduced by their teams, who only have to pay the player 110 percent of his base salary in 2009.
The Packers have one such player with Bigby. His tender was $1.76 million, and by not signing it, Bigby won't be out much money (roughly $55,000) should the Packers reduce the offer to the "110 percent" stipulation.
The loss in salary would have been more substantial for Williams and Jolly had they not signed, upward of $2 million for both players. Williams' base salary in 2010 will be $3.043 million, while Jolly will earn $2.521 million.
While an unsigned Bigby risks losing his starting job to impressive rookie Morgan Burnett, Williams should report to the team for the minicamp and will have a shot to step in as a starter with Harris still rehabbing his surgically repaired knee. Harris may not be ready for the start of the season.
Woodson, the league's reigning Defensive Player of the Year who is entering his 13th pro season, was in Green Bay during the OTAs and worked out at team facilities.
"I know he has been hitting it hard here of late, and it's great to have him out there," McCarthy said. "He looks like he is back in top shape already."
The minicamp is structured as a review of the full body of offensive and defensive schemes that were installed during the OTAs — a total of nine installations.
"Everybody will have been introduced to all of the new concepts and everything we're trying to accomplish," McCarthy said.