SPARTANBURG – It’s a rite of passage for every rookie during his first NFL training camp.
Traditionally, after every practice veteran players will drop their shoulder pads or helmets on the field and make the trek back to the team’s locker room. It’s the job of the rookies to pick up said helmets and shoulder pads and schlep the foul smelling equipment back to the locker room for the older players.
But there was an odd sight after the Carolina Panthers' first practice this week at Wofford College: Gerald McCoy, the veteran free agent and arguably one of the top defensive tackles over the past nine seasons, collecting abandoned helmets and bringing them back to the locker room.
That’s Gerald McCoy, the six-time pro bowl defensive tackle, who has played nine seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a man with 54½ career sacks, and an $8 million contract picking up helmets.
Among those on the Carolina roster, only tight end Greg Olsen, a 13-year veteran, and long snapper J.J. Jansen have been around the league longer.
It caught the attention of his teammates, which might have been the point. But McCoy didn’t see what the big deal was all about.
“When I was a rookie, I had to carry pads and helmets and stuff,” said McCoy, who signed a one-year deal with the Panthers in June. “My parents raised me to be a leader. They also raised me with the mindset that you’ve got to serve before you can lead. So, how do you know what kind of leader you need to be if you’ve never served before? You don’t know how to guide a group of men if you don’t know what they need. So, you’ve got to put yourself in that position before you can be a leader. And, it’s hot out here and training camp is grueling and everyone needs a break.”
His teammates still gave him funny looks as he went about the process of picking up the helmets.
“Guys were looking at me like 'what are you doing’?” McCoy said. “I don’t know how long I’ll be in Carolina, but I want to make sure I’m just being me. I’m not trying to do anything special. I’m not showing off. Anyone who knows me, who has followed my career, I do this all the time. This game we play is so short-lived and you’ve got to put your stamp on it and try and be a light. That’s all I’m trying to be.”
And at 6-4 and 300 pounds, there were few teammates that were going to argue with McCoy.
“I mean, I’m not going to say no,” said Carolina linebacker Shaq Thompson, a first-round draft pick in 2015.
McCoy has also made a point to work with the young defensive linemen in camp. After one recent practice, McCoy and Woodrow Hamilton, a second-year defensive tackle out of Mississippi, spent time going over different pass rushing techniques.
“Usually, rookies and young guys have to go with me before or after practice,” McCoy said. “I usually make that mandatory. But this is my first year in Carolina, so I can’t make demands. I offered it to the young guys that want to learn and Woodrow was one of those guys. You are as strong as your weakest link, but how strong can you be if you don’t have any weak links.”
The Panthers are hoping that McCoy can be the disruptive force in the middle of the defense that he was with the Buccaneers. McCoy’s role will be especially important as the team makes the transition from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 hybrid that Carolina plans to employ this season.
The Panthers have plenty of talent on their defensive line. McCoy along with Kawann Short and Mario Addison give the Panthers three legitimate threats on the defensive front.
“I’ve never, ever had a problem in my career with being double-teamed or being the main focus,” McCoy said. “When you have one guy that is taking up a lot of attention that means everyone else can flourish. The great thing about this group is that everyone can demand attention. All these guys up front and any one of them can demand a double team. That’s a dream come true. In the NFL, you have to win those one-on-one battles. That’s the key to this league. We’re going to make the quarterbacks miserable. It’s gonna happen.”
McCoy thinks that rookie defensive end/linebacker Brian Burns, the Panthers first-round draft pick last April, will be an impact player.
“I think he’s a mix of (Tampa Bay) Noah Spence and Aldon Smith (San Francisco/Oakland),” McCoy said. “Long arms and tall and he can turn the corner full speed with his knee dragging on the ground and make a play. To be his size and to be able to turn the corner like that, it’s scary.”
So far, Carolina head coach Ron Rivera likes what he’s seen from the 31-year-old McCoy. And he's good at picking up helmets, too.