Denver Broncos' most improved of 2016: Shane Ray

There's a reason the Denver Broncos are content with the departure of DeMarcus Ware, and it has nothing to do with the future Hall-of-Famer's age or skill level.

The Broncos' elite defense will continue ticking in 2017 because of Ware's backup, Shane Ray, who's finally ready to take over opposite Von Miller.

Their 2015 first-round selection, Ray was Denver's most improved player last season. And the progress he made during his sophomore campaign was evident.

What's next for the Denver Broncos? Don’t miss out on any news, take a second to sign up for our FREE Broncos newsletter!

With an upgraded skill set, combining power and athleticism, Ray finished second on the team with eight sacks, including a hat trick in Week 3, and chipped in a defensive touchdown. He logged the Broncos' second-highest pass-rushing grade (78.9), per Pro Football Focus, behind only Miller (86.5). They nearly graded out equally in coverage.

When Ware fractured his forearm in Week 3, subsequently missing five games, Ray ensured a seamless transition in the oft-rotating linebacker corps.

Something he guaranteed before the season even began.

"That’s why I was drafted. That’s what I’m capable of doing," Ray said in August. "I don’t think there will be any drop-off between Von [Miller]’s and DeMarcus [Ware]'s production when I’m in."

Now, there's a full-time opening at outside linebacker, as Ware is heading to free agency and unlikely to return. Ray will have the first crack at starting, though he'll face competition from fellow young Horseman Shaquil Barrett.

After doubling his sack production from 2015, jumping up from four, Ray appears poised to stake his longevity with the Broncos.

The best is still to come.

Follow Zack Kelberman on Twitter: @Kelberman247

Our Latest Stories