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Broncos' belief in Shane Ray's progress will impact offseason plan

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos continue to put their offseason plan together, they will make projections on the development of their players and decide who will stay and go.

And while any discussion about young players who need to show some football maturation next season includes quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch, the Broncos have another player whose elevation from rotation piece to starter might be just as important.

Executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has said the top priority of the offseason is to “stay great on defense.’’ For that to happen, linebacker Shane Ray has to build off 2016’s progress and make another significant jump.

“No question,’’ DeMarcus Ware said recently. “Shane has those skills you need to rush the passer and he wants to be good. Now it’s about that consistency, that maturity, doing it play after play, week after week, season after season. Some guys flash, but the guys who really produce do it consistently over the long haul. That’s where Shane is right now.’’

Ware missed six games with injuries and is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in the coming weeks. In the days leading up to the Super Bowl, Ware said he believes he will play in 2017 and Broncos coach Vance Joseph wants him back on the roster. Ware said the Broncos could be “part of the equation’’ if Elway agrees with Joseph. But whether Ware re-signs with the Broncos or heads elsewhere, it falls on Ray to be ready for a bigger role.

“I can be ready for whatever they have out there for me,’’ Ray said. “I felt like my offseason work helped me this time and I’m going to do more and do it better this time.’’

Elway made Ray the “best player available’’ selection for the Broncos in the first round of the 2015 draft despite Von Miller and Ware having finished the previous season with 14 and 10 sacks respectively.

And since Ware missed five games in 2015 with back troubles and six games this past season, the Broncos have seen Ray get plenty of work. He had a three-sack game in Cincinnati and finished second on the team with eight sacks last season.

By season’s end, Ray was third among the team’s linebackers, behind Miller and Todd Davis, with 665 snaps played (58.1 percent of the defense’s total snaps). The boost in Ray’s performance from his rookie season to last year was a direct result, the Broncos believe, of his improved conditioning with his offseason work a year ago.

Ray came in as the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, but was not physically prepared for the rigors of an NFL season.

“I learned that pretty fast,’’ Ray said. “I made it a focus last offseason. How you take care of yourself is how you'll play.’’

Several personnel evaluators said in recent weeks they believed Ray was one of the most improved players in the league last season. So whether Ware, coming off back surgery, returns as more of a situational player or signs elsewhere, the Broncos will look to Ray as a starter at linebacker opposite Miller.

Defensive coordinator Joe Woods has said, given the number of double- and triple-teams Miller faced last season while being held without a sack over the last four games, it’s important the Broncos force the issue in the pass rush at other spots in the formation.

“We need to get to the quarterback or force people to move more help away from Von sometimes,’’ Woods said. “You’re never going to leave Von totally 1-on-1 because everybody knows what he can do with that, but we can do better across the formation.’’

Ray is at the front of that line as he enters his third season.

“I want expectations, I have them for myself,’’ Ray said. “This organization, all we know is how to get to the playoffs, how to win the division and how to try to get to the Super Bowl. We weren’t in that role the last time, I want to help us get back to that.’’