The Falcons struggled to block for the run and pass in 2013, and they haven’t generated much of a pass rush during the six-season reign of general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith.
The bottom fell out of both areas in 2013, contributing to the free fall to 4-12. The Falcons have spent the offseason focused on getting bigger, stronger and tougher along the lines and their top two draft selections reflect that emphasis.
After selecting Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews with the No. 6 overall draft pick Thursday night, the Falcons on Friday took Minnesota defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman with their second-round pick, No. 37 overall. With their third-round pick, No. 68 overall, the Falcons took big safety Dezmen Southward out of Wisconsin.
“We feel like with what we picked today we are continuing with the theme of getting bigger and stronger and working from the inside out,” Dimitroff said.
Hageman played nose guard for his final two seasons with the Gophers, but the Falcons said he’ll play defensive end. Falcons coaches got an up-close look at Hageman during Senior Bowl week, and Hageman said he developed chemistry with defensive line coach Bryan Cox.
“I feel like we connected and bonded,” he said.
Hageman stood out during Senior Bowl week, when he was difficult to block in drills and practices.
“We got an opportunity to spend significant time with him in the classroom, on the field, in the cafeteria,” Smith said. “We got to see how he interacts with other players. He’s a big, strong, passionate football player. We really enjoyed the week we spent with him in Mobile. It was a good week. We got to learn a lot about him and learned a lot about us as a staff.”
Hageman bench-pressed 225 pounds 32 times at the scouting combine, tied for the third-most repetitions among defensive lineman. He also has superlative athletic ability for his size, as reflected in his 35 1/2-inch vertical leap and a 40-yard dash time of 5.02 seconds at the combine.
But draft analysts knocked Hageman for not playing up to his potential for the Gophers.
“They have an opinion,” Hageman said of his critics. “It takes a man to speak about his flaws. At the end of the day, (flaws) are not permanent. I have time and space to change them. As soon as I get comfortable and get the proper teaching, I will be fine.”
Hageman will get the chance to make an immediate impact.
Veterans Osi Umenyiora and Kroy Biermann opened 2013 as the starters at defensive end. Biermann finished on injured reserve after surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon he suffered in the second game of the season.
In addition, Biermann often lined up at linebacker in a 3-4 alignment, and Hageman could play at one of the ends in that scheme. Smith said Hageman played at every position along the line at the Senior Bowl.
The depth behind Umenyiora and Biermann includes veteran Tyson Jackson, who signed as a free agent in March. The Falcons also have third-year player Jonathan Massaquoi and 2013 draft picks Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga.
Hageman, a Minneapolis native, grew up in foster care until he was adopted at age 9.
“I used football and basketball as an outlet,” he said. “In the city I was from, you could either go this way or that way. I used football to my advantage.”
Hageman also was a standout basketball player in high school. He was recruited to Minnesota as a tight end before switching to defense during a redshirt season.
Hageman played as a reserve in eight games as a freshman (four-game academic suspension) and started all 26 games over his final two seasons. He led the Gophers with 13 tackles for loss in 2013.
Hageman’s Falcons contract likely will be similar to last season’s 37th draft pick, Bengals running back Giovani Bernard. He was signed for four years and $5.2 million.
“College is over,” Hageman said. “No more late-night study halls; no more worrying about where I will get drafted. Now I can focus on what I love to do. I don’t see it as a job because it’s what I love to do.
“At the NFL level it’s a business, but at end of the, day my motivation is because I love this sport and I’m so good at it. I have so much more potential so why not run with it?”
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