Falcons defensive lineman Ra'Shede Hageman is a guy I did a draft breakdown on when he was coming out of college. Back then I said that the dude was a project, and he has proven me right so far.
The thing to remember is that he simply hasn't been playing defensive line all that long. That means when he came out of college, even though he had a ton of potential, he was still in the early stages of learning the position.
His potential definitely was there on film and in his workouts. Look, guys who are 6'6, 310 pounds, can bench 225 pounds 32 times and are pretty damn athletic (35.5-inch vertical) do not grow on trees. I figured with some good coaching and a good scheme fit, Hageman could theoretically turn into a monster after a couple of seasons.
Well, he is heading into his third season, and as the old folks say, it's about time for him to piss or get off the pot.
Last season, Hageman played all 16 games and started 11 of them. That's fine, but his play was still too up and down, especially earlier in the season, for my liking. Oh sure, I saw the occasional flash that would get me excited, but then it would be followed by several mediocre plays that would have my face screwed up.
For someone who is so obviously powerful, Hageman simply didn't play that way all the time. You combine that with the fact that he's still technique poor and it starts to make sense why he still hasn't made that much of an impact statistically or otherwise for the Falcons.
Now, I can't stick Hageman with all the blame here. As I look at the Falcons defensive linemen over the last two years, I haven't exactly seen anybody else's technique get that much better either. The one thing Hageman does have complete control of is his effort, and I will give him credit for getting a lot better at hustling over his first two years in the league. I can give his defensive line coach some credit in that area, but that's about it. I can't say for sure that a better defensive line coach would have unlocked Hageman's potential by now, but I can say it for damn sure wouldn't have hurt.
I'm also at a loss for why the Falcons rarely used him on third downs as a pass rusher. He can't get any better watching from the sideline and it's not like the other guys were exactly setting the world on fire either. Yet, Hageman was mostly a two-down player in the games that I watched, which cut down on pass rushing opportunities for him and helps explain why he only had one sack all year.
If you've read this far I'm sure you're asking yourself why I'm even picking this guy to break out this year. It's really simple: because it's time.
Most NFL players show you who and what they are going to be in their career in Year 3. Some guys show it a little earlier, some a little later, but the third year is the bright dividing line where guys step up and ball out or fall by the wayside. As many complaints as I have about Hageman's play last year, the one thing I readily admit is that he was playing better football by the end of the season. I believe he can carry that momentum into this season and finally unleash his full potential.
One of the little things I noticed earlier in the season was that Hageman would keep changing his stance before the play. Which hand he had down seemed to depend on where he lined up or which side of the ball he was on, or so it seemed. To me he appeared to be thinking too much about that kind of crap before the snap of the football and it made him less confident after the ball was snapped.
But against Jacksonville in Week 15 all of a sudden I didn't see all of that changing stances bullshit, and wouldn't you know it, Hageman actually played ... better.
Like, a lot better.
Not just for a play here or there either. He played well pretty much all game. If he'd played all of last season the way he played in that game, I'm confident he would've had more than 27 tackles and one measly sack to show for it, even with him coming out on third downs. I don't know if a light bulb finally came on for him or whatever, but if it that Ra'Shede Hageman shows up at the start of this season, then I think you will be hearing his name more and more each week.
Thing is the Falcons need him to be dominant at this point or he is just wasting space. If he can't get his shit together this year, Hageman has to know the Falcons can't afford to continue being patient with him. On the other hand, that fear of getting shit-canned might be just the right extra motivation Hageman needs to really rip it this season. That is especially true if they play him a little at defensive end, something I advocated way back in his draft breakdown, and allow him to rush some on third-and-long.
Regardless, you can expect Ra'Shede Hageman to finally justify the second-round pick the Falcons spent on him in 2014 because he doesn't have any other option at this point.