The NFL Draft’s pass rushing core in 2015 was praised for being a special group; Dante Fowler Jr. went third overall, followed by Vic Beasly who went eight, Alvin Dupree was taken with the 22nd pick, and after all of them, at pick 23, followed Shane Ray.
Had you looked at the pre-combine rankings for that class, you’d find that it wasn’t Fowler or Beasly leading the group but rather Ray and Randy Gregory, who both seemed like shoe-ins to go in the top 10. Ray and Gregory saw their draft hype quickly drop due to varying issues with Marijuana that muddied their draft stocks in the following months leading to their falls.
Entering his third NFL season, Ray, unlike Gregory, has rewarded the Denver Broncos for their selection, showing the type of explosiveness getting after the quarterback that made him such a vaunted prospect, while staying clean off of the field.
After only eight career starts - all in 2016 - Ray already has 12 sacks in his young career and seems to be merely scratching the surface. That’s a good thing because the Broncos will need him to take the next step in his development in 2017 as DeMarcus Ware’s retirement will force him into increased snaps on top of being a full-time starter for the first time.
We went back to the tape to see what Ray brings to the table, what he can improve, and how much potential is still left in the tank to turn him into a star at the level of Ware or counterpart Von Miller.
What gets us excited
The Missouri product is a responsible run defender. He does a good job of reading the play and filling lanes.
What No. 56 lacks in strength in the run game, he makes up with in quick-twitch agility, making him hard to block. He adds to that good awareness in reading and reacting to the run.
Ray is terrific in pursuit against the run. He never gives up on a play and will chase plays down to the opposite side at times making crucial tackles.
Pass rush wise, Ray is lightning quick off the snap and can win off the edge or on the inside. He plays with great agility and balance.
Back to his time in college, he’s always stood out for his ability to blitz on the inside and find gaps. He’s an especially dangerous weapon on stunts or when lined up inside on exotic formations.
His motor has always stood out. He’s relentless. Constantly moving and fighting to get to the quarterback.
More and more you’ll notice Ray’s hands becoming a major weapon. He moves them violently while attacking opposing blockers; he also flashes some deceptive power that’ll put OT’s on their cans.
Ray plays with great leverage as he’s able to get under tackles pads quickly. His bull rush can be extremely effective thanks to his high-level quickness off the snap and natural ability to play with leverage.
Once he disengages, he’s lighting quick to close on plays. This is a big part of why he’s been so productive despite limited playing time.
Ray stands out on tape, particularly in obvious passing thrid-downs as he's clutch often managing to create pressure and disrupt plays when it matters most.
Though not his greatest strength or use, Ray’s competent when asked to drop back in coverage, showing himself to be useful in underneath zones and even having some ability to turn and run after tight ends and backs.
What still needs work
At times, Denver’s young pass rushercan get sealed off in the run game by bigger blockers. Awareness of attacking angles and adding more strength will help.
His lack of elite NFL strength shows up at times in the run game if he’s unable to shake his blocker. Even smaller players like tight ends can lock on and push him back against the run.
Ray’s ability to read the run right off the snap could still improve.
No. 56 needs to consistently disengage and win off the snap.
Ray could stand to add to his arsenal of pass-rushing moves to become a truly elite defender and maximize his talents.
At times, Ray appears better-suited winning on the interior rather than on the outside. His bend off the edge could be better - this was a concern coming out of college as he had a very slow three-cone, the primary measure for bend in an edge defender.
Being consistently explosive off the snap and reading the snap-count in passing situations is another area in which Shane could become a better rusher.
To become a true defensive disruptor, the former first rounder needs to create more turnovers. So far, he only has one forced fumble which came in the very last game of the 2016 season.
What to expect in 2017
Ray’s tape is generally impressive, and he’s already shown the skills to be an above-average starter as a 3-4 outside linebacker with the potential for much more. His ability as a pass rusher is very high, and there’s still tons of room for growth.
Ray’s physical strength against the run will have to improve, this doesn’t necessarily mean he has to add weight, but he needs to be stouter and more consistent in that area. He’s solid right now, but if he starts 16 games and plays more snaps than he ever has, that could wear on him, meaning that if he doesn’t improve, he could become a liability. This was a big part of Ware’s greatness as he was able to stop the run with ease and also had a bigger frame than Ray does.
In eight games as a starter, Ray had five of his eight sacks, but four of those came in two games - Week 3 against the Cincinnati Bengals and Week 17 against the Oakland Raiders - in the other six starts he only had two half-sacks. Being more consistently productive as a starter will be crucial in Ray achieving his potential.
A lot of that will come down to his ability to consistently win off the snap and with a greater variety of pass rushing moves as he’s still getting by primary on athleticism and hustle right now. His quick twitch ability makes Ray especially talented on interior blitzes or exotic looks, which could add an interesting variety of schemes and pre-snap looks for Denver.
Shane Ray has all the talent to blossom into the top tier NFL prospect that everyone thought he'd be immediately after he declared for the Draft in 2015. 2017 will be a big year for him and if he’s able to make significant strides it could be a big year for the Broncos also, as the pass rush could be truly special, again.