When the Falcons tabbed Ra'Shede Hageman in the 2014 NFL Draft, management understood he'd be something of a project. Thomas Dimitroff and Co. knew he wouldn't be a major contributor right away like some of the other players available at 37th overall. They knew there were safer bets to be made, but they saw potential in him.
They also recognized that, if he were to be worth the selection, he'd need a proper mentor to show him the ropes. Certainly, Bryan Cox has fit the bill.
Cox and Hageman gained widespread attention last summer, as Hard Knocks cameras frequently caught the abrasive D-line coach berating his new protégé. Those clips made for good TV, but their relationship is about more than shouting and B-roll footage of a young athlete running sprints.
It's about a mutual understanding that tough love is necessary to convert raw skill into on-field success. So Hageman is buying in today, just as he did when the two first met at the Senior Bowl. And, while he believes his relationship with Cox remains the same, he's noticed some changes to their dynamic.
"I'm definitely bringing it more; he's definitely laying off me a lot more because he sees me getting better," Hageman said. "So it's the same. We're able to read each other, and I know what he looks for running off the ball and running to the play. He doesn't have to tell me that anymore because I already know."
In addition to Cox's presence, Atlanta's revamped defense should aid Hageman's development. The 4-3 under formation is akin to the one he learned in college and seems to underscore his strengths.
After some challenging adjustments during his rookie campaign, Hageman is now comfortably lining up at the 3 technique in Atlanta's base package, meaning he's positioned on the outside edge of the guard's shoulder.
"This is for the best," he said. "It's definitely something that I like, that I'm confident in. Now that we're back in the 4-3, I'll be able to shoot off the ball. It fits me perfect.
"Just the fact that we have a different defensive scheme, that's what I'm used to. So I'm definitely confident mentally. Physically, I have to get back to my old ways, just keep going forward and get in the backfield."
To fit into the "fast and physical" style Dan Quinn prescribes, Hageman needed to drop some weight and improve his speed. And that he did: the 24-year-old's frame is slimmer, his diet is better and he's undoubtedly more nimble.
This weight loss is encouraging for a number of reasons. Obviously, being in better shape will make his job easier. Perhaps more importantly, though, it's a sign of maturation. Hageman didn't simply pick up a new workout plan for the offseason; rather, he's steadily improved himself since he arrived at Flowery Branch, and he realizes a few months of salads and cardio won't cut it.
"You have to understand that your body is going to take you as far as you want it to go," he said. "Therefore, I'm trying to lose weight, especially for this defense. The defense is more of a run-and-gun, get off the ball, and it fits me. So I'm doing the best I can — eating healthy, maintaining the weight I'm at."
Quinn has likely seen Hageman's performance in Week 16, which may be a small sample of what's to come. That day, he registered three tackles — one for a loss — a sack and a QB hit. By utilizing his immense strength, he wreaked havoc in New Orleans' backfield and helped lead Atlanta to a crucial victory.
The Falcons haven't had many lineman in recent years who could be consistently productive the way Hageman was at the Superdome. If his recent progress translates to the regular season, he could be that guy in 2015.
"It goes all the way when we evaluated him in the field goal block," Quinn said. "It's this penetration, the ability for him to go and create and disrupt. For that size guy he's got really good quickness, so we're going to try to utilize it and feature it any way we can."
"I'm just hungry," Hageman added. "I'm definitely too big to be average."