TAMPA — Last month, Gerald McCoy sounded like a player either preparing to move on to another team or adapt to his fifth head coach with the Bucs since 2010.
“Embrace change, even when the change slaps you in the face," McCoy tweeted four weeks ago.
Not much will change for the Bucs with McCoy, who will return for his 10th straight season. He also will earn $13 million — which eats up nearly 18 percent of the money spent on the defense — even though his 2019 salary was not guaranteed.
Bucs coach Bruce Arians and his staff have evaluated McCoy’s performance and believe he will be a good fit in the 3-4 scheme under defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.
While McCoy never doubted he would return to the Bucs in 2019 — playing at least one more season in Tampa Bay than Warren Sapp — there has been speculation that the salary cap-strapped team may either opt out of the deal, trade the six-time Pro Bowler or ask him to take a pay cut. None of that will happen, barring something unforeseen.
That’s because McCoy, 31, still is a player teams have to account for. While his sack numbers have plateaued with a total of 12 over the past two seasons, he led the Bucs with 21 quarterback hits in 2018. That’s one more than Jason Pierre-Paul, who led the team with 12.5 sacks.
The Bucs were historically bad on defense last season, allowing 29 points per game. But as Arians knows, you don’t get better by jettisoning one of your best players.
McCoy will be asked to make a transition to sometimes playing defensive end in the 3-4 alignment, much like the Cardinals did with defensive tackle Darnell Dockett. In reality, it often morphs into a four-man front with a stand up pass rusher which puts McCoy in his familiar defensive tackle position.
A year ago, the Bucs used their first-round pick on Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea, who suffered a calf injury the first day in pads and missed the next seven weeks. Vea showed promise after returning to record 3.5 sacks. The Bucs also could use their No. 5 overall pick in the NFL draft to select another pass rusher.
What helps McCoy is that that there is a glut of defensive tackles available in free agency, making a trade more difficult.
The Bucs are about $18 million under the salary cap and have several of their own free agents they want to re-sign, including left tackle Donovan Smith, linebacker Kwon Alexander and receiver Adam Humphries.
But McCoy’s contract is still within market value. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, for example, earned $14.5 million on a one-year deal with the Rams. He is a free agent along with veteran defensive tackles Grady Jarrett, Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson.
Besides, McCoy still is one of the most productive players as his position in the NFL. His 54.5 sacks rank fourth among NFL defensive tackles.
So G-Mac is back. And it turns out he was right when he tweeted “4-3, 3-4, 5-2, Nose guard, 3-tech, DE, doesn’t matter. Either you can play football or you can’t. PERIOD!!”
That’s no slap in the face.
What about other potential casualties of the salary cap?
Keep in mind, a lot of decisions will be made after the NFL draft in April.
• Tight end Cameron Brate, who will earn $7 million this season, had 30 receptions for 289 yards and six touchdowns, will also return for 2019. He played despite a hip injury, postponing surgery until the end of the season. While Brate he has seen his playing time reduced since the arrival of tight end O.J. Howard two years ago, Arians is intrigued by having two pass-catching tight ends in his offense.
• WR DeSean Jackson, who asked to be traded last Oct., may get his wish if a team is willing to swallow his $10 million, non-guaranteed contract. Arians has talked about re-recruiting Jackson, but the Bucs already own his rights so he can’t play anywhere else at the moment. Who knows if he will attend any of the offseason workouts or OTAs. The Bucs could take this one all the way through the preseason if they want to.
• Defensive tackle William Gholston has a base salary of $3.75 million for 2019. He had only 10 tackles and one sack last season. But again, there is no urgency here except to clear salary cap room.
• DT Mitch Unrein suffered a concussion early in training camp, eventually was placed on injured reserve and never played. He has a $1 million roster bonus and a $2.75 million base salary. The question is whether is unable to pass a physical, in which case some injury protections come into play.