Ra’Shede Hageman said learning the Falcons’ defense is not like learning astronomy, his final class at the University of Minnesota.
By that, the defensive lineman, the Falcons’ second-round pick, meant that it’s doable but that it will nonetheless require some time.
"It’s football," Hageman said of coordinator Mike Nolan’s fairly complex defense. "It’s what I love to do. So the fact that I’m always on top of my game and just trying to learn — I obviously want to be good. You don’t play in the league just to be average so you obviously have to hit the books hard, as well.
"So, I mean, obviously, just the fact that it’s a different language and more terms to it, it’s challenge so I’m just going to face it."
When NFL free agency began, the Falcons invested in their defensive line perhaps more heavily than at any other position on the field. They re-signed end/tackle Jonathan Babineaux. Then they signed nose tackle Paul Soliai and 3-4 end Tyson Jackson. If all three of those play to the end of the contracts they signed without being cut or taking a pay cut, the trio will earn a combined $67 million from the Falcons.
It’s also worth noting that the Falcons brought back defensive tackle Peria Jerry, their 2009 first-round pick, and that defensive tackle Corey Peters returns, although Peters, coming off a ruptured Achilles’ tendon, did not practice with the full team during Organized Team Activities and mini-camp.
As one might expect, that does not exactly have the Falcons in a rush with Hageman. During offseason workouts, he hardly worked with the first-team defense.
Last year, the Falcons were in a much different position with their second-round pick Robert Alford, a cornerback. The Falcons had cut veteran starting corner Dunta Robinson prior to the 2013 season and allowed another veteran starting corner, Brent Grimes, to depart via free agency. Add on top the injury-prone nature of last year’s starting left corner, Asante Samuel, and the Falcons coaching staff put some urgency into preparing cornerbacks Desmond Trufant, the team’s first-round pick last year, and Alford for serious playing time.
That urgency proved itself to be warranted when Samuel missed a number of games, particularly at the season’s start. Alford ended up starting four games and playing in all 16.
This year is a slightly different story. Other than first-round pick Jake Matthews, the right tackle, and fourth-round pick Prince Shembo, who could be pressed in at inside linebacker because of the season-ending injury suffered by starter Sean Weatherspoon during OTAs, the Falcons have been able to take their time with their other top picks, which also include third-rounder Dezmen Southward, a safety. Veteran Dwight Lowery seems to be fitting in smoothly at the free safety position vacated by the decision to cut Thomas DeCoud.
Hageman’s imposing physical size, at 6-foot-6, 310 pounds, has been counted as one of his best attributes. However, if he doesn’t know what he’s doing on the field, it won’t help him at all.
He said that it’s a "big jump from college to the NFL."
"So there’s a different language here and more studying the plays," he said, "but at the end of the day, I know as soon as I learn my plays, I’ll be on track. Obviously, the coaches are behind me 100 percent."
In terms of those coaches, one of Hageman’s biggest boosters is defensive line coach Bryan Cox. Hageman, out of Minnesota, participated in the Senior Bowl, where the Falcons’ staff coached his North team. He and Cox began to form a bond while they working together that week in Mobile, Alabama.
Hageman said working with Cox at the Senior Bowl was "great."
"He’s blunt," Hageman said of Cox. "He’s always up forward and that’s the kind of coaches I definitely do well with, somebody that keeps with me and let’s me know what I need to work on. … Me and him obviously have established a relationship earlier in the Senior Bowl so me and him kind of picked it up" during offseason workouts.
Obviously, the Falcons want Hageman to be a productive player but sometimes the best way to develop talent is to nurture it slowly. In Hageman’s case, they appear to have that luxury. In all likelihood, he will be part of a rotation.
When his grasp of the defense picks up, he could put himself in a position to be more effective — "having the game slow down so you can play fast," as the coaching staff likes to say.
It might not be astronomy but until or unless he learns the Falcons’ defense, Hageman may just play a supporting role in 2014.