CHICAGO—Shane Ray showed up. Just three days after his arrest for marijuana possession in Missouri, the edge rusher was in Chicago for the NFL Draft on Thursday night, taking questions from reporters when he could just as easily have hidden. But anyone who knows Ray knows that’s not how he functions.
When he hated his strict high school and chafed against its rules, he didn’t quit. When he was disciplined for a bad attitude and too much partying as a young player at Missouri, he turned around and showed his coaches he could change. And now, not a week after a decision that likely cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars, Ray is back again in that familiar spot, repentant and determined to prove he’s more than his rap sheet. This time, the stakes are higher, but as always, Ray seems ready.
A week ago, many considered the 21-year-old a top-10 pick. The Falcons, who had the No. 8 pick, seemed a likely destination. (They chose linebacker Vic Beasley instead.) And though Ray had exhibited no pattern of bad behavior, his arrest—and its worst-case timing—was enough to push him to the Broncos, who traded up to No. 23 to select him. It was a gamble Denver was comfortable making.
“We had several people that talked to him,” Broncos general manager John Elway said. “He was very remorseful. He realized he made a mistake. He told me it wasn’t going to happen again.”
Ray’s accountability spoke volumes in the days leading up to the draft. He hasn’t deflected the issue; instead, he’s steamrolled it. Yes, he was cited for marijuana possession after being pulled over while driving in the passing lane. Yes, he’ll be entered in the NFL’s substance abuse program and subject to random testing from day one. And—most importantly, perhaps—no, he was not under the influence of marijuana at the time of his arrest, nor, he said, has it ever “controlled my life or been an issue.”
“One mistake doesn’t define all the good that I’ve done,” Ray said. “It doesn’t define who I am as a person at all. I’ve learned from my mistake, and I’ve owned my mistake. I came here to Chicago when I could have ran. I didn’t. I faced it as a man.”
But yes, this is Denver, so cue the weed jokes. Out of your system? Good, because Ray doesn’t think they’re funny. Neither do the Broncos, who have been so comfortable in their pre-draft vetting process that they’ve spent their two most recent first-round picks on players with top-15 talent whose stock has plunged due to off-the-field questions. In 2014, the team selected cornerback Bradley Roby out of Ohio State with the 31st pick; Roby had been involved in a bar altercation and also was cited for operating a vehicle while intoxicated after he was found asleep at the wheel. His issues at the time seemed more pervasive than Ray’s one arrest, but sure enough, Roby’s rookie season passed without incident, and he finished with two picks and 65 tackles.
Consider then that Ray may have even more potential than Roby. He led the SEC in sacks during his junior season at Missouri, and his explosive first step has left scouts slack-jawed. He’s still battling a toe injury he suffered in the Citrus Bowl—the consensus for now is that it won’t require surgery—but when asked about his recovery, he was confident he’d be ready to go for Week 1 of the 2015 season.
Ray will also step into the Broncos’ new 3–4 defense with a chance to make an immediate impact—and also to learn from some of the game’s best players at his position. In fact, he’s already begun; in the months leading up to the draft, Ray developed something of a relationship with Von Miller, who knew his Missouri teammate, Marcus Murphy, from their hometown of DeSoto, Texas. Miller, who’s made huge strides since his own struggles with violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy, will be a valuable resource for Ray, and veteran defensive end DeMarcus Ware will also be the kind of role model most teams would only dream of being able to provide a young player.
“They’re two amazing, ferocious pass rushers that I can be a sponge to, and I can’t wait,” Ray said. “I can’t wait.”
Teams like the Broncos, perennial Super Bowl favorites picking at the end of the draft, aren’t supposed to be able to get game-changing players without dealing significant assets. They aren’t supposed to—but Denver did. Sure, Elway sent Detroit Manny Ramirez, an offensive lineman who could likely have been cut from the Broncos roster this summer, along with Denver’s first-round pick this year and its fifth-round picks this year and in 2016; but for a team without major roster holes and with a surplus of picks, that’s hardly a haul worth missing. In return, Denver got to leapfrog over Arizona, which seemed a likely landing spot for Ray, rather than wait for its own 28th pick and settle for an average offensive lineman.
It’s hard not to applaud the Broncos for their choice. Ray has the potential to be Elway’s best pick since 2011, when he took Miller with the draft’s second selection, and after coming under fire at times for his draft choices, it seems the quarterback-turned-GM has found a strategy that helps him gain leverage from the end of the first round. Ray will bolster an already-talented defense that was third best in the NFL in 2014, and his presence should also allow Ware more rest in his 11th season in the league. Stepping in as a future Hall-of-Famer’s backup and potential successor is a tall task for a rookie, but Ray has the right blend of hunger and swagger to take the task in stride.
“I can bring whatever they need,” he said. “If they need me in the run game, the passing game, helping in coverage, whatever you need me to do, I’m going to go over and beyond to show this team I’m capable of dominating at whatever they need me to do.
“I’m going to show them that this was the best decision that they could have made.”