The 2017 NFL Draft just concluded, and several players were selected after having off-field issues that may have dropped them down the draft board.
However, they have a recent example that shows them that collegiate trouble doesn’t have to mean a player is going to continue down that road in the NFL. Nor does it mean players with character issues won’t be given a fair shake once they make it to the NFL.
They can all look at Shane Ray. The pass rusher was under the microscope for off-field issues two years ago. Ray was cited for possession of marijuana just days before the 2015 NFL Draft. He was expected to a top-10 pick, but his late-draft season legal issues dropped him to the No. 23 pick and the Denver Broncos. The Broncos traded up five spots for the chance to grab Ray; they liked him that much.
The Broncos took a chance on Ray, and it has paid off. He has stayed out of trouble, and in his second season (after he was part of a Super Bowl-winning team) Ray became a solid contributor to the Broncos’ vaunted defense. He had 8 sacks in 2016 after having 4 sacks as a rookie.
As he heads into his third NFL season, much is expected from the Missouri product by new Denver coach Vance Joseph and new defensive coordinator Joe Woods. With DeMarcus Ware (who served as a terrific mentor for Ray both on and off the field) now retired, Ray is needed even more in Denver. He will be Robin to Von Miller’s Batman.
It was exactly what the Broncos wanted when they rolled the dice on Ray in 2015. When he spoke to media members last week, among the subjects the bright and congenial Ray talked about was transitioning to a leader, helping younger players and his work in the Denver community.
That has to warm the heart of Broncos general manager John Elway, who took some heat for drafting Ray in the first round so soon after a legal issue. But so far, Ray has been a terrific addition to the Broncos. Ray credited Ware for helping him make a smooth transition into NFL life.
“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,” Ray said in comments distributed by the team. “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.”
Still, Ray relishes the opportunity for more opportunities and to build upon his strong NFL start. Yet, he is far from feeling like he has made it. In fact, he was very critical of himself this offseason.
“One of the first things I did this offseason was do a self-scout,” Ray said. “I just went over all of my film and saw what worked for me and what I did well. I saw what I could have gotten better at. That was just point ‘A’ for me. Now I have identified what I can get better at as a player, what went great for me and what I could have done better in coverage or the run game.
“I have really just taken that and gone day by day with it by working on my footwork, my positioning and my technique. I’m continuing to do the things that helped me make that huge jump last year.”
Ray said being around superstars Miller and Ware has made him aspire to have a great career, and he has built major goals for himself. He said he thrives every day to become an All-Pro player. One way of achieving that goal is for Ray to achieve another goal – average a sack a game.
Ray knows he’s in the right spot and he is looking forward to continuing the momentum that he has had since getting to Denver and into the Broncos’ system.
“My time has gone pretty fast here now that I look back on it,” Ray said. “Going into Year 3 is a huge blessing. I remember when I first stepped up here in front of you and the feeling that I had. It’s something that I cherish; just this opportunity while gaining knowledge as a football player. I’m loving my job and loving what I do and continuing to work for my particular goals and my team goals as well. 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. It’s a lot easier and clearer to have that mindset. It’s taken some time to get there, and I’m good now.”
Just like Elway planned all along.