Tampa Bay's Gerald McCoy is coming off his first Pro Bowl season and embracing a new role as the leader of a defense that lost Ronde Barber to retirement this spring.
The Buccaneers have committed more than $100 million to upgrade a leaky secondary, however McCoy feels it's up to him and the rest of a young defensive line to give offseason acquisitions Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson the best chance to have a huge impact.
McCoy reported to training camp 10 pounds lighter than the Bucs requested. He's eager to build on last year, when he remained healthy for an entire season for the first time in his career and began to show why he was the third overall pick in the 2010 draft.
Now, the Bucs are counting on him to emerge as the leader of a unit missing Barber, the final link to Tampa Bay's only Super Bowl championship.
"I'm not really doing anything differently, just kind of taking on more of the role I've been given. I always had somewhat of a leadership role, otherwise your peers won't vote you as a captain," McCoy said.
"But THE leader — that spot was left open when (Barber) left, so I'm just kind of filling in, not doing anything different. Just taking the leadership that I already had to a different level," McCoy added. "That's pretty much it."
The Bucs were last in the NFL in pass defense in 2012, nearly setting a league record for yards allowed en route to a 7-9 record.
A porous secondary was part of the problem, but an anemic pass rush also contributed to the team missing the playoffs for the fifth straight year.
McCoy had a career-best five sacks, more than the first two seasons of his career combined. Tampa Bay's 27 sacks overall were the third fewest in the league.
Entering his fourth season, McCoy is determined to change that. And he's intent driving ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers, as well as rookie tackle Akeem Spence, to help him.
Before practice each day, the 25-year-old gathers all of the team's first-year defensive linemen and accompanies them onto the field to work on fundamentals.
"What I'm doing with them, I never got. I had nobody to help me, had nobody to coach me, nobody to take me under their wing. I had to learn on the go," McCoy said.
"I don't want these rookies to go through the same thing. I want to be that guy, where they don't have to say: 'Nobody helped me, they didn't teach me.' ... because the better they are, the better we'll all be."
McCoy was the second defensive player selected in the 2010 draft behind Detroit tackle Ndamukong Suh. He struggled as a rookie, failing to notch a sack until his ninth game.
He missed the final three weeks of that season with a torn left biceps, finishing with three sacks. He had one sack the following year, when he sat out 10 games and parts of two others because of injuries.
Despite the limited production and being unable to stay healthy those two seasons, McCoy said he never lost confidence in his ability.
The 25-year-old returned in 2012, bought into the system installed by new coach Greg Schiano, and progressively played better.
He was rewarded with his first trip to the Pro Bowl, not that he felt he necessarily need that to validate his improvement.
"I never doubted my ability. I never doubted myself because I knew once I started to figure it out, I would start to be successful," McCoy said. "You never have it figured out — ever. The worst three words anybody can say is 'I got it.' You've never got it figured out. But once I started to pick it up, I knew it was going to roll."
The Bucs, who lost Barber to retirement in May, have invested heavily in upgrading the defense this offseason.
They traded for Revis before giving him a six-year, $96 million contract; Goldson signed a five-year, $41.5 million deal in free agency after helping San Francisco reach the Super Bowl last season, and two other potential starters — cornerback Johnthan Banks and Spence — were added in the draft.
In addition, Clayborn is returning after missing most of last season with a knee injury and Bowers is healthy after missing the early portion of 2012 while recovering from a torn Achilles tendon.
"Clayborn's back, Bowers is healthy, I'm healthy. ... We're going to see what happens," McCoy said.
The fourth-year pro feels he's put in the work necessary to give himself a chance to do his part. He was determined to report to camp lighter than the Bucs felt he should and met his goal, though he won't say exactly what he weighs.
"I trust my coaches, and I trust the system. I love the program, and I trust what we do here. However, I have to step across the white lines and I have to play," McCoy said. "I know my body better than anybody. So I know what I feel good at, and where I'll be most confident. That why I came in lighter than what they wanted me at."
McCoy's commitment has not gone unnoticed. The player said he's 10 pounds lighter than he weighed last season and dropped 25 pounds between April and arriving at camp this week.
"I think it all lends to just the focus and how hard he's worked to get ready for the season," Schiano said. "This guy is very focused."