Shortly before the start of training camp, Jameis Winston and Gerald McCoy had a little chat about leadership. During this summit of perhaps the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' most important players on each side of the football, the four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle agreed to a suggestion by his 22-year-old teammate that he perform a specific act of team motivation. McCoy didn't reveal what that act would be, but said it would be obvious when it happened.
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Perhaps McCoy is indeed waiting for a certain moment to carry out this act. Or perhaps he was referring to more of an ongoing action, one that in fact has already begun. Here's some evidence that this might be the case: McCoy has taken his practice-field performance to another level, and the rest of the team has definitely taken notice.
In fact, Head Coach Dirk Koetter, without any prompting or mention of his cornerstone defender, elected on Thursday to shine a light on McCoy's exemplary work through the first week of camp.
"Gerald McCoy could not be setting a better practice pace than he is," said Koetter. "That guy is dominating in practice every day. When your best players are also your best practice players, it sets a great example for your team."
That McCoy is at the top of his game – or perhaps even ascending to a higher peak than before – has been fairly obvious to the untrained observer, even with the limitations of practice compared to a game. McCoy's quickness has shown up in every drill, from pass-rush one-on-ones to full-team periods against the starting offense.
The view from right behind McCoy has been pretty impressive, too. His Pro Bowl running mate in the linebacking corps, Lavonte David, lit up when asked about what he's seen from his vantage point of McCoy's production and effort level. David agreed with Koetter that the defensive tackle has consistently set the pace for the whole defense.
"Yeah, I've noticed that a lot," said David. "Nine-on-seven, team run drills, watching it on film…his get-off is amazing. His motor is amazing. He's disrupting plays in the backfield, and that's the way it's supposed to be. We expect Gerald to do things like that, and it's not going unnoticed. Everybody can see it. We expect him to do that down-in and down-out, and he's doing it. There are great things to come this season out of him."
Perhaps McCoy's mysterious act of leadership as suggested by Winston will simply be a statistical accomplishment that would bear a very good omen for the defense as a whole. McCoy has been one of the NFL's most productive interior pass-rushers of the past three years with a total of 26.5 sacks from 2013-15. However, in each of those years, circumstances have kept him just below double-digits, with 9.5 sacks in '13 and 8.5 each the next two years. McCoy's play in camp so far suggest this could be the year he finally tops 10 sacks, and the additions of such edge rushers as Robert Ayers and Noah Spence should help create some more one-on-one opportunities in the middle.
Double-digit sacks for McCoy would not surprise second-year guard Ali Marpet, who has had a view of his dominant teammate from the opposite side as David. Marpet, a former Division III prospect who was able to use McCoy as a personal litmus test during his transition to the NFL last year, is finding the challenge even greater this year.
"Gerald's playing tremendous football," said Marpet. "He's so freaking fast. He's messing up a lot of things that we're doing, and it's only making us better, which is awesome. He's going to give a lot of people problems this year."
The plan is for the Buccaneers' defense as a whole to be much more disruptive this year after a disappointing 2015 campaign. If that is to happen, it certainly looks like Gerald McCoy will be leading the way.