Entering his sophomore year with the Broncos, Shane Ray is happy to have that rookie year behind him.
It was a good year, no doubt, for the 2015 No. 1 draft pick who played 14 games, logging four sacks and 15 tackles as well as a forced fumble in the playoffs.
But it was a definite adjustment coming in as top dog at the University of Missouri to being a backup to one of the greatest OLB-tandems in the NFL.
Perhaps you've heard of them, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware?
Yeah, so had Ray. Not that he was complaining; he needed that pro football education.
"I think it was a whole season worth of learning for me," Ray said, adding that he got in the ear of his mentors and coaches to learn whatever he could. "On top of that, just learning how to be a pro as far as eating right, study habits and all of those things. Those were things that I really had to pick up on and learn as I progressed through the year."
The 6-foot-3, 245-pound OLB said he learned quickly athleticism would only get him so far in the NFL.
"At this level you've got guys that are very smart in everything they do as far as technique," Ray admitted. "That was a big thing for me. Just understanding my athletic ability took me this far, but I had to find another piece, another key."
One of those "keys" was understanding the importance of improving technique while also studying other teams and breaking down game film.
"As a rookie, when you first come in, you don't understand how serious of a job that it is," Ray said of the classroom work. "Once you finally get a hold of it, things will come a lot easier once you've grasped the concepts."
Beginning his Denver Broncos career last spring by rehabbing a nagging foot injury from college, Ray felt like he was already behind the curve when he got on the field.
This season he's coming off a huge learning curve with the defending champs and Super Bowl MVP plus a strength-building offseason.
The outside linebacker says he feels healthier than ever, having added 10 pounds but maintained his 10 percent body fat.
"I think everything I took from last year just helped me advance so much better this offseason in preparation for the season," Ray said, noting he's put in a lot of work to be a more complete linebacker. "Last year, I was limited to playing a lot of WILL linebacker, which was majority rushing. But now, I can play the SAM just as freely as I played the WILL as far as drops and coverages and just knowing my assignment and what I'm supposed to do."
This added versatility on the field will make Ray an even more dominating presence as the Broncos will undoubtedly limit Ware's production to keep him healthy throughout the season. Ware missed five games in the middle of last season due to back spasms.
"It's not really a rush and a panic now that I'm more relaxed and I'm more comfortable," Ray said of his role. "I know where I'm supposed to be and how I'm supposed to play the technique."
And this freshman education is something Ray has shared with Broncos' new rookie quarterback, Paxton Lynch. Although Lynch and Ray play very different positions, they share some camaraderie as No. 1 draft pick.
"In this organization, when you're a first-round pick, I think across the board everybody has huge expectations of you to contribute to help this team," Ray said. "I told Paxton to take it day-by-day. That's all you can really do as a rookie. Whatever the organization has planned for him, it's going to bring its own kind of stresses. He just has to relax, take it day-by-day, take the coaching, embrace being a rookie, just have fun and love your job."
And in case you're wondering what he and his fellow defenders think of the quarterback situation, they aren't worrying about it. Just like they didn't worry about it last year.
"Honestly, the thing about this team and our defense is we worry about what we have to worry about," Ray said. "That's being the best that we can against other offenses. ...We just have to continue to make sure that we excel and give [our offense] the ball back."
About that excelling...Ray believes the Broncos defense can definitely be even better this coming season.
"I think so. As far as the linebackers, with me and Shaq [Barrett] coming in, we are a lot more experienced and a lot better and we bring more to the table," Ray said, adding that the same is true for fellow young guys like third-year corner Bradley Roby. "The expectations for us as young guys is to step up, do what we're supposed to do and help lead this team. I think defensively we're bringing a lot of guys back and we're probably bringing in a little bit more firepower."