Gerald McCoy has seen change. In his first six NFL seasons, since entering the league as the third-overall draft pick in 2010, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' star defensive tackle played under three head coaches and received tutelage from nine different position assistants. Of the three other spots on the defensive line around him, at least two have seen a new primary starter every year that his career has advanced.
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The turnover around him has been so continuous that McCoy wasn't quite sure he had his count of assistant coaches right as he spoke after the Buccaneers' OTA practice on Tuesday. (We counted; he was right.) That happened to be one of the team's first full-scale practices under new Head Coach Dirk Koetter so, yes, the landscape has changed around Gerald McCoy again. This time, however, it could be bigger and better than ever.
Pictures of Winston at the Buccaneers' Organized Team Activities at One Buc Place.
It begins with the team's new defensive line coach, Jay Hayes, whose acquisition was seen as something of a coup when Koetter lured him to Tampa from Cincinnati. Hayes had been the D-Line coach for Marvin Lewis since Lewis took over the Bengals in 2003, and he was renowned for pulling the most out of the available talent. Cincinnati spent exactly one first-round draft pick on a defensive lineman during Hayes's 13 years with the team – David Pollack in 2005 – and the only real unrestricted free agent signing of note in that time was John Thornton way back in '03. The team occasionally brought in a lineman near the end of his NFL run, such as Sam Adams or Jamaal Anderson, but mostly they relied on Hayes to develop such lower-round draft picks as Geno Atkins, Frostee Rucker, Michael Johnson, Robert Geathers, Domata Peko and Carlos Dunlap.
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Last year, with nary a first-rounder in his stable, Hayes helped the Bengals rank 10th in the NFL with 42 sacks. Cincinnati also ranked 10th in that category over the last five seasons combined. McCoy, who was a first-round pick and who has already played well enough to earn four Pro Bowl invitations, still believes that Hayes can help him improve his game.
"You're never too old to learn something new, and every coach brings something different," said the seventh-year defender. "Coach Hayes is a technician. One thing he prides himself on is technique. I think that's what's made him so successful over the years. Coach Hayes is great at breaking down players, so he takes what you do and he adds what he knows and puts his little spin on it. So, really, for me, what I do is, the different things he's teaching, I try to take a little bit of it and add it to my game and make some adjustments here and there."
McCoy has averaged just under nine sacks per season over the last three years, and even though that double-digit mark has just barely eluded him in any given campaign, his level of production from the defensive tackle position is rare in the NFL. Given his track record, it might be tempting for him to resist any efforts to change his game. But he's being asked to fit into a new defensive scheme under first-year coordinator Mike Smith, so some change is essentially necessary. McCoy said he has willed himself to be open to the change.
"Even Coach Hayes has told us in the room, 'I know, guys, this is a difficult transition, but you have to take the coaching and try to learn something new.' So, yes, it is difficult, but once you swallow your pride and say, 'You know what? He's not trying to hurt me; he wants to win just like me.' So just take the coaching and do what he says and what's the worst that could happen? It doesn't work? But at least try it. I believe the guys upstairs know what they're doing, so you just listen to them and go with it."
The lineup promises to be different around him once again, but that's almost certainly a good thing. The Buccaneers have been working to supercharge their pass rush for years, essentially since the Warren Sapp-Simeon Rice era ended, and that was clearly a focal point this offseason. After nabbing former New York Giant defensive end – and former first-round pick in Denver – Robert Ayers in unrestricted free agency, the Bucs used the 39th overall pick in this year's draft to add edge-rusher Noah Spence. How the Buccaneers will arrange their starting lineup and D-Line rotation is still being determined, but Ayers and Spence will obviously be significant pieces. McCoy is excited by both additions.
"One thing I can say about Robert Ayers, man, he loves the game of football and he's very intelligent," said McCoy. "He knows a lot about the game and he breaks stuff down really quickly. He's just excited to play; a very passionate guy. That's exciting to see. He's a vet. A lot of guys that come in are younger, but he's a vet. Him and Clinton McDonald are our longest tenured guys in the [defensive line] room, so it's great to see a vet come in."
Ayers is coming off a disruptive nine-sack season in New York and he has 19.5 QB takedowns in his last three seasons combined. Spence, obviously, has yet to chase an NFL passer in anger, but his track record suggests he'll excel in that role. Many analysts considered the former Ohio State and Eastern Kentucky standout the best pure pass-rusher in this year's draft field.
"Noah Spence, man, I did some research on him," said McCoy. "One thing I've seen about this kid is that he's always been able to rush the passer. From every level he's been at, he's always been able to rush the passer, and that doesn't just go away. But you have to change some things, critique some things, when you get to the NFL level. It makes you very excited to see what he's going to be able to do, because that's just in his DNA, being able to rush the passer. He just going to have to learn to do it at the professional level. I'm very excited for the future to see what's to come."
That sentiment could very well apply to the Buccaneers' 2016 season as a whole. Yes, it will be another season of transition in a career full of them for Gerald McCoy, but this time he just might find that change is a good thing.