There is always a place in the NFL for a pass rusher with a non-stop motor and a knack for getting to the quarterback. Coaches and scouts are desperate to find disruptive playmakers in a league where offensive coordinators are increasingly leaning on the passing game to move the ball.
That's why everyone's buzzing about Missouri DE Shane Ray. He's arguably the best pure pass rusher in the 2015 NFL Draft, exhibiting a frenetic style that overwhelms blockers at the point of attack. Although Ray is a bit of a herky-jerky athlete, he displays extraordinary balance and body control turning the corner on speed rushes. He combines his exceptional first-step quickness and closing burst with a slippery "dip and rip" maneuver that allows him to elude blockers at the line of scrimmage, resulting in big hits on the quarterback.
As I studied the 2014 SEC Defensive Player of the Year on tape, I was impressed with his ability to win with speed or power off the edge. Ray has a natural feel for setting blockers up with stutter-steps and quick inside moves, leaving offensive tackles uncertain of how he will attack on each snap. With Ray also flashing the awareness, instincts and savvy to win on stunts and loops, the Missouri standout is tough on offensive tackles lacking the patience, footwork and body control to handle a Tasmanian devil off the edge.
Ray absolutely dominated the competition last season (14.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss), and I'm convinced he can be a Pro Bowl-caliber pass rusher in the NFL. With Ray showing a nasty temperament and violent playing style, he is the kind of alpha dog that all defensive coordinators desire in the lineup.
While there are so many things to love about Ray's game, I must express some concerns about his length, athleticism and run defense. At just under 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds with 33 1/8-inch arms, Ray falls a bit short of the standards some teams use on 4-3 defensive ends. Long, rangy offensive tackles could smother him at the point of attack, nullifying his speed and quickness off the edge. Although Ray routinely defeated top competition in the SEC, he will need to learn to vary his pass-rush approach against big, nimble tackles at the next level.
Ray's overall athleticism and agility come into question when considering him as a 3-4 edge defender. He isn't smooth or fluid changing directions in space and didn't appear to have a natural feel for dropping into coverage at his pro day. Thus, a creative defensive coordinator employing a 3-4 scheme could balk at the notion of using him as a dropper in coverage.
Against the run, Ray will battle and compete on the edge, but he can get knocked around a bit at the point of attack. While most undersized edge players struggle against the run, Ray must find a way to survive when teams run directly at him on early downs. How well he fares in this area will ultimately determine how defensive coordinators use him early in his career.
And then there's one last issue that just became public this week: a foot injury similar to turf toe. NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported that Ray saw a foot specialist on Thursday. While the doctor's recommendation was that surgery wasn't necessary, some team doctors might disagree. This may or may not affect his draft stock; we'll just have to wait and see.
Overall, Ray is a spectacular pass rusher with a handful of elite traits (first-step quickness and closing burst) that suggest he could develop into a sack artist at the NFL level. Looking at his game tape and raw production, he reminds me of Junior Galette -- a sixth-year pro with 22 sacks over the past two seasons. However, Ray is more explosive off the ball and plays with a relentless spirit that should allow him to generate 10-plus sacks annually as a designated pass rusher in an aggressive scheme. Given the importance defensive coordinators place on harassing the quarterback, Ray's ability to thrive off the edge should make him mighty attractive on draft day.
Here are a five potential team fits:
Washington Redskins (No. 5 overall pick)
The departure of Brian Orakpo in free agency leaves the Redskins without a dynamic DPR (designated pass rusher) in the lineup. Although Ryan Kerrigan has 38 sacks in four NFL seasons (including 13.5 in 2014), he needs a partner in crime to help the Redskins get back on track in the NFC East. Ray certainly would fit the bill, as a high-motor rusher with extraordinary first-step quickness. He has a natural feel for getting to the quarterback, and his relentlessness wears opponents down over the course of the game. Consequently, Ray routinely delivers game-clinching plays in the fourth quarter. Given the Redskins' inability to get off the field in critical situations last year, the presence of a hard-working pass rusher could help Jay Gruden put more W's on the board in 2015.
New York Jets (No. 6)
The Jets are quickly building a defensive juggernaut with Antonio Cromartie and Darrelle Revis rejoining Gang Green. However, Todd Bowles needs to upgrade the pass rush to help his imposing cornerback tandem suffocate the premier aerial attacks in the AFC. Ray would give the Jets a pure pass rusher to wreak havoc off the edges -- they wouldn't have to rely on the aging Calvin Pace and inconsistent Quinton Coples to collapse the pocket. With the ex-Missouri standout flashing excellent snap-count anticipation and capable of winning one-on-one matchups with effort and desire, Bowles' ultra-aggressive blitz schemes could help the rookie notch 10-plus sacks as a first-year starter.
Chicago Bears (No. 7)
John Fox's defensive background leads him to build his defenses around the talents of dynamic edge rushers. He orchestrated quick turnarounds in Carolina (Julius Peppers) and Denver (Von Miller) behind the spectacular play of rookie pass rushers. He could elect to follow a familiar blueprint in Chicago with Ray. The All-SEC defender will fit in well as a situational rusher in Vic Fangio's version of the 3-4. The wily defensive coach helped Aldon Smith enjoy an outstanding debut campaign by selectively using the rookie on obvious passing downs to help him play to his strengths in Year 1. Given the presence of Jared Allen and Pernell McPhee on the edges, Ray can work his way into the rotation and give the Bears an electric specialty pass rusher to use in favorable situations. Fox wants to rebuild the Bears' defensive reputation; Ray's arrival would help the defense get back on track.
Atlanta Falcons (No. 8)
The Falcons hired Dan Quinn to bring some swagger to the Georgia Dome and repair a leaky defense that hasn't generated consistent pressure on the passer since John Abraham departed years ago. Ray specializes in blowing past blockers on speed rushes, but also flashes an inside move that allows him to slip through cracks on the interior. With the Falcons poised to implement a simplistic scheme that allows defenders to utilize their natural talents to win individual battles, Ray's polished rush skills could make him a nightmare to block in Atlanta.
New Orleans Saints (No. 13)
Sean Payton is attempting to remake the Saints into a title contender by placing a greater emphasis on playing hard-nosed defense. New Orleans wants to get back to bullying opponents at the point of attack and bludgeoning quarterbacks in the pocket. Ray is a menacing presence off the edge, exhibiting the first-step quickness to blow past offensive tackles. Thus, he would shine in the Saints' version of the 3-4 as a DPR from the open side. Ray's disruptive skills would help Junior Galette and Cam Jordan see more one-on-one opportunities. With Rob Ryan intent on creating havoc with an assortment of five-, six- and seven-man pressures, the Saints should target Ray on draft day. This unit needs more impact players at the point of attack.