When the Denver Broncos picked up Missouri edge rusher Shane Ray with the 23rd overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, the words “value” and “foresight” came to mind.
“Value” because Ray was initially pegged as a top-10 talent, whose surprising free fall was the result of a poorly-timed marijuana citation, and “foresight” because Denver’s front office realized that their defensive success was largely predicated on its ability to rush the passer, and heading into year two of a three-year deal, veteran DeMarcus Ware wouldn’t be around forever.
As Ray’s third season approaches, it’s clear the Broncos nailed the pick. Ray has stayed out of trouble since moving to Denver, and Ware called it a career after his third season as a Bronco. In the interim, Ray’s even notched 12 sacks in just eight starts.
The old guard has moved on, and it’s time for Ray to graduate into a full-time starting role on the edge opposite Von Miller. If Ray’s first couple of years in the league are any indication, the Broncos shouldn’t miss a beat on the field as they swap Ware for Ray.
To figure out why that is, let’s take a look at Ray’s best game as a pro, a three-sack outing against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 3 of last season.
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Shane Ray is a strong, powerful man, and he puts it all on display right here. The Bengals set up with five offensive linemen and a tight end at the line of scrimmage, plus an additional lineman lined up a yard behind the line to the left of tight end Tyler Kroft.
It’s a bad idea, mostly because you don’t want a swing tackle blocking Ray, but also because the formation allows him to get a full head of steam before engaging with Jake Fisher. With a full three yards between him and Fisher, Ray has all the momentum and uses a bull rush and eventually powers straight through Fisher’s inside shoulder, collapsing on Andy Dalton barely half of a second before T.J. Ward does the same.
This play is also a testament to the capability of this Broncos defense at full strength. Derek Wolfe eats up the double team of Kroft and left tackle Andrew Whitworth, allowing Ray the one-on-one with Fisher, who he quickly tells to eat some turf before enveloping his quarterback. Not to mention, it knocked Cincy out of field-goal range in a two-point game.
Might as well push them even further out of field-goal range. And that’s exactly what Ray does on the very next play.
The Bengals are in the shotgun on second down and Ray is matched up against Whitworth, the best possible match-up for Cincinnati. The veteran left tackle gets into excellent position after the ball is snapped, showing off a quick sidestep and a pretty good punch.
Credit Jared Crick for collapsing the pocket and getting Dalton off of his rhythm at the top of his dropback. He fires through Clint Boling and although he doesn’t get ahold of Dalton, he forces the quarterback to bail out and try to escape the chaos.
Then we see why Ray was praised so heavily for his incredible motor prior to the draft. Eventually, Whitworth loses track of where Dalton has gone, and when he turns his head in the wrong direction, Ray is able to somehow to keep his left hand on Dalton as he’s tripping over Wolfe, and finally twist himself around and wrap up the Red Rifle for a second consecutive play.
Chalk up this sack to his high motor and persistence. Whitworth wins the battle off the ball, but Ray is able to react quicker to the ensuing chaos and the decaying pocket, leading to sack two of three in the game.
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The Broncos have the game in the bag, but they still want to keep the Bengals out of the end zone in the final two minutes. And with the clock ticking away, the obvious pass-rushing situation has Miller and Ray both teeing off on every snap.
Again, Whitworth wins the initial battle, but gets the short end of the stick when Dalton decides to head for open field after Von Miller, who looks like he knows the snap count better than the right tackle, Cedric Ogbuehi, nearly gets a hand on the football.
Ray’s awareness is on full display as he immediately disengages from Whitworth and reaches out to pull Dalton back as if to say “not so fast.” Lance Zierlein of NFL.com said before the draft that Ray “lacked ideal length as an outside rusher,” but Ray uses every bit of his 33 1/8-inch arms on this play to complete the hat trick in the jungle.
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Ray’s third sack also shows his ability to adjust. Just two plays before, Ray tried to use a speed rush to beat Whitworth to edge and ended up 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage, colliding with Miller as Dalton scooted for four yards up the middle.
Just like it’s important for a pitcher to change speeds to keep a batter on his toes, it’s crucial for pass rushers to mix power with speed to keep tackles from ushering them out of the play and becoming susceptible to draw plays and quarterback runs.
Ray figured it out, and although he didn’t beat one of the best left tackles in the NFL, he was in perfect position to keep Dalton from picking up any more yards on the ground.
It’s an ideal spot for anybody with Derek Wolfe and Von Miller commanding attention aside you, but Shane Ray has what it takes to pick up the slack in the post-DeMarcus Ware era for the Broncos.
No one can duplicate 94’s leadership ability and locker-room presence, but at least on the field, Ray has already exhibited a lethal combination of power, awareness, and tenacity that will ensure Denver’s edge rush remains a two-man show.
Will Keys is an Editor for Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @WillKeys6.