Broncos will keep a close eye on Shane Ray's health


ENGLEWOOD, Colorado -- There are plenty of ways to gauge the Denver Broncos' expectations for rookie outside linebacker Shane Ray.

First off, they traded up five spots in the first round of the NFL draft to select him at 23rd overall. The Broncos said they had Ray pegged 10th overall on their draft board.

And on Tuesday, the Broncos went on their annual golf outing, usually a festival of rental clubs and large men in golf carts who may or may not have played a round before. Ray found himself in quarterback Peyton Manning’s group.

Manning typically has a rookie in his group for the outing, more about some get-to-know-you time rather than much about golf. Manning has often called it a team-building time with some fun thrown in, as well as dispensing some advice to some of the team's newest arrivals.

The Broncos begin their first set of OTAs (organized team activities) Wednesday, which brings with it the first 11-on-11 work of the offseason. There are still no pads and no tackling -- not until training camp, by league rules -- but it is the opening set of workouts with full personnel groupings.

Ray just completed his first full week of work with the Broncos since returning to the team May 18. Ray had attended the team’s rookie minicamp the weekend following the draft (he did not practice). But because the University of Missouri’s graduation was not until May 18, by league rules, Ray could not attend any other team functions until then despite entering the draft as a junior.

Ray’s participation in the offseason program has been monitored closely because of a toe injury. He suffered what he called a "variation of turf toe" in his right foot in Missouri's bowl game. Ray did not work out at the combine in February and was limited at least some in his on-campus workout in the weeks before the draft.

Broncos coach Gary Kubiak has said Ray’s pre-draft workouts affected the player’s ability to heal and that the Broncos would be careful in the coming weeks in how they pushed him before training camp.

"From my understanding, and I’m not an expert on it, but it’s my understanding as he went through everything, all the workouts and stuff, that when he got to the draft he could have rehabbed better or been on a better program," Kubiak said recently. "Obviously, now he’s with us and I promise you he’ll be around the best. He’ll definitely benefit from it."

Ray, DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller -- the veterans both Pro Bowlers last season -- give the Broncos three edge-rushers for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to move around the formation. Ray said he’s just getting to know Ware but that through a former teammate he has interacted with Miller even before the Broncos drafted Ray.

"When I got drafted here, he texted me and told me how excited he was, and I, of course, said the same thing," Ray said. "To be able to learn from him and DeMarcus, I just think this is a great opportunity for me."

Ray played more as a defensive end at Missouri and will play in one of the outside linebacker spots in the Broncos’ 3-4 defense, likely as Ware’s backup initially at weakside outside linebacker. Ware, who will turn 33 years old in July, played 68.9 percent of the defense’s snaps last season.

That was the highest total among the team’s defensive linemen, and the Broncos’ desire is to improve Ware’s productivity and impact by using Ray to divvy up the snaps. Ware had just two of his 10 sacks in 2014 over the regular season’s last eight games and was asked to play over 70 percent of the defense's snaps in four of the team's last five games.

Ray’s type of injury can have a significant impact on a player’s ability to cut and come out of a three-point stance. He is expected to wear an orthotic in his right shoe to avoid aggravating the injury. He has repeatedly said he believes he will be fully ready to go by training camp and that he is ready to play a linebacker’s role, including dropping into coverage.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a big adjustment at all," Ray said. "Like I said, even before the draft, I’ve played linebacker before. Switching to outside linebacker is not a very difficult task for me. It’s really more so learning the system, learning the plays and I think I’ve been doing a pretty good job of getting it down."