TAMPA -- Gerald McCoy is a natural leader on the football field, but last year the defensive tackle struggled to take advantage of his special gift.
The three-time All-Pro was trying to learn the defense installed by new head coach Lovie Smith, and confusion often interfered with his performance.
"Last year we didn't know how to lead them because we were learning it ourselves, but I think in that aspect we've grown,' McCoy said after finishing the Buccaneers' second day of mandatory minicamp Wednesday.
The defense improved as the season went on last year because McCoy and others were reacting instead of figuring out where they are supposed to be. But the defense still allowed 25.6 points per game, eighth-highest in the NFL.
McCoy says for him to operate at his highest efficiency, he needs to know where everybody on defense is going to be and why they are there.
"If you know what everybody is doing, you can play a lot faster because you know 'All Right, now I can take a risk because I know this guy is going to have my back on this particular play,'" McCoy said.
The defense is now capable of playing what McCoy calls "hit-the-ground-running" football.
"The big part of last year was trying to do it the way the coaches wanted it," McCoy said. "He brought in guys this offseason that have played in this system that know how he wants it done. Then you have guys that have a year under their belt with Coach Smith's system. The rookies we brought in and the younger guys, they can just get onboard."
Smith loves to stock up with players he coached while with the Chicago Bears, and McCoy has been impressed with Henry Melton, who played under the coach for three seasons in the Windy City.
The 28-year-old Melton and Clinton McDonald will likely be in the rotation with McCoy at defensive tackle in a move Smith hopes will add some zest to Tampa Bay's pass rush.
McCoy calls Melton is a rarity, sort of like a five-tool baseball player, which is the kind of person needed to play Smith's Tampa 2 defense effectively.
"Henry used to be a running back, defensive end and now he is a defensive tackle. He can play three-technique, nose guard, five-technique, six-technique, whatever you need," McCoy said. "It's rare to find that kind of guy. A guy of his caliber and his talent that has a Pro Bowl under his belt is going to be huge for us."
Smith calls McCoy a rarity who is going to be huge for the Bucs, which is why they signed him to a lucrative deal last year that guarantees the 27-year-old $51.1 million.
While Smith has anointed McCoy the team leader, he has been very happy to see former New England Patriots offensive lineman Logan Mankins take on that role for the offense.
"He (Mankins) has everything you are looking for in a leader. I am talking about a guy that is going to set the right example, say things that need to be said at the perfect time," Smith said. "We haven't voted captains yet, but it's safe to say he's going to be one. Guys just naturally move into those positions."
McCoy doesn't just help guys on defense. He's taken quarterback Jameis Winston under his wing and made him feel a lot more comfortable.
A former third overall pick in the 2010 draft, McCoy came in with high expectations that didn't materialize until this third season due mostly to injuries.
"I can speak from the worst of the worst. Getting hurt the first two years, to being labeled a bust, to people calling for your head -- to now people saying 'He's always been good,' yeah right," McCoy said. "That's why I told him to just be a rookie. Enjoy the process. Don't try and come and turn the franchise around your first year. Let the 'rah-rah guys' be the 'rah-rah guys.' That's me, Clinton McDonald."