It was an odd sight for the opening day of Denver Broncos training camp to not see DeMarcus Ware manning his spot across from Von Miller at outside linebacker. Today that distinction fell to second-year player, Shane Ray.
With Ware on the Non-Football Injury list, as well as taking a reduced role on the defense this year, Ray is being counted on to step up his level play from his rookie season.
Ray entered his rookie year with the hefty expectations that go along with a player who was not only drafted in first round of the NFL Draft, but also valued enough by the front office to trade up to select him. While Ray did not have a poor rookie season, his did fall a bit short of expectations, including his own.
Following Day One of training camp, Ray talked about how he's improved.
“I feel really good," Ray said. "I feel like the game is slowing down again. My last year in college, I would always tell people, it’s slow out here and I feel like I’m just moving fast. I’m starting to get that feeling again now that I am breaking things down. I’m able to see things quicker than I saw them last year. My reactions are better. That’s where I felt like I wasn’t last year. Being a rookie, you’re trying to break things down and it doesn’t happen how you want. Now, I feel like I’m getting back to that point.”
Enter year two, and Ray already passes the eye test of someone with more determination and focus to secure an expanded role as the linebacker lining up opposite of Von Miller. Having played last year at 235-240 pounds, Ray added another 10 pounds of muscle over the offseason and it showed early in his first day of practice.
With quickness, he beat an offensive lineman early and then looked much stronger bull-rushing last year's starting right tackle, Michael Schofield, into where the quarterback would have been on his next rep.
Ray also seems to be fully aware that his role on this year’s team will be different than the one he served last year. As the backup to Miller and Ware, Ray did see action in 14 games, but he never settled into a consistent rhythm—as far as playing time was concerned, being used almost exclusively as a situational pass rusher.
http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1690279-broncos-2016-training-cam... Losing a player of Ware’s caliber in the starting lineup will also be felt in the leadership void he'll leave behind on the field. Ray enters this season as a mix of teacher-on-the-field for the younger players, who are still looking to carve out their niches, and student as he continues to refine his game.
“For me, an every down player," Ray said. "That’s the thing for me. I want to be complete. I’m not a situational pass rusher. I’m a run-stopper, I’m a pass rusher and I can play pass coverage. Whatever I need to do and whatever my coaches need to do, I’m ready. I think they know that. I’m just going to continue to work every day. Whatever happens, happens. I love DeMarcus and he’s a great coach to all of us, a great mentor. I’m still asking him every day how I can get better as a player. I’m just looking forward to the season and with my role expanding and just taking a running with it.”
Ray also made a point of saying that with the added reps that come from the loss of players like DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib, an opportunity has been created for everyone on the team to take another step forward.
“We have guys that are ready to step up at all times," he said. "That has been our consistency as a team. That’s why we’re great and had a great day. Of course we are ready for those guys to come back. They are huge playmakers for us. We need them back, but right now, we have to focus on the guys that are on the field being able to play at a high level.”
In recognizing that players need to take advantage of reps during training camp, while also still looking to Ware to help with his own development, Ray is taking all the right steps to emulate his mentor. While the shoes of Ware are hard to fill for any one player, Ray is committed to tackle the challenge head on with confidence.
Adam Uribes is an Analyst for Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @auribes37.
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