He knows, without a doubt, his time has arrived. After two seasons’ worth of preamble, Year 3 is his year to show why the Broncos traded up in the first round of the 2015 draft to select him.
In the cycle of football life, DeMarcus Ware -- along with Von Miller -- helped shape Ray’s first two seasons in the league, and now that Ware has retired, the Broncos are looking at Ray to fill a spot at the front of the line.
“DeMarcus’ leadership goes such a long way," Ray said this week. “Everything that he’s taught me the past couple years -- all of the opportunities I had to learn stuff from him and see things from a first-ballot Hall of Famer’s perspective is a huge blessing. Not a lot of guys get to come into the league and have guys like that that are also willing to teach like DeMarcus. It’s very bittersweet for me. His presence in the locker room as a mentor and as a big brother is hard to replace. At the same time, this is how the business goes. This is how life goes. It’s time for me to step up and handle my business and take everything that he taught me and apply it to the field."
The Broncos have spent plenty of time this offseason trying to add players up front in the defensive line, including DeMarcus Walker as a second-round pick in last weekend’s draft, to help free Miller in the pass rush. Miller was held without a sack in the Broncos’ last four games in 2016, largely because the Broncos often couldn’t get the lead to put themselves in more favorable rush situations.
And the team’s run defense was so porous -- the Broncos allowed 130.3 yards rushing per game -- offenses were not in third-and-long situations enough for Miller, Ware and the rest to rev up the rush as much as the Broncos would have liked. They still finished third in the league in sacks, with 42, but that was 10 fewer than they had in 2015.
As the Broncos move through their first on-field workouts of the offseason, they’ve got plenty of attention on Ray because a big part of the defensive plan depends on the 23-year-old linebacker stepping up.
“And Shane’s been ready,’’ Miller said just before the draft. “He’s been ready for a long time.’’
The Broncos have seen only glimpses because Ware missed six games last season due to a fractured forearm and then back trouble. With those opportunities, Ray finished second on the team in sacks with eight as he played 58 percent of the defensive snaps.
Ray returned a fumble for a touchdown in Week 2, had a three-sack game against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 3 and closed out the season with sacks in three of the final four games. Asked this week what he expected in the season to come, and Ray was to the point.
“I keep pressing the goals," Ray said. “When you sit in a room with two All-Pros and two potential Hall of Famers, it’s hard to say that mentality and that idea doesn’t rub off on you. ... I want to be an All-Pro player. That’s something that I aspire to every day. I feel like every big goal that I make, I’ve made smaller goals that can attain that for me. One goal that I said, I went back to how I was thinking in college. I said in college my junior year that I can average a sack a game. Nobody can honestly stop me from getting one sack a game. I look at that in the NFL and honestly I feel the same way. Nobody can block me for a whole game. One sack a game for me is equivalent to 16 games -- that’s 16 sacks. That could lead the league, not to mention playoffs or any of that stuff. That’s how I break stuff down for me, and that’s what I’m going to do."
Ray finished his career at the University of Missouri with 14.5 sacks in 14 games in 2014 as he was named the Southeastern Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year.
“I’m loving my job and loving what I do and continuing to work for my particular goals and my team goals as well,’’ Ray said. “It’s something that I really let take over my life. I love this now. There are no distractions. This is what I do. This is what I want to be great at."