By Russ Lande
Spread across the landscape of the NFL are many players who overcame backrounds that were far from ideal, and Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman no doubt falls into this category. Spending the first four years of his life growing up with a mother who was battling drug addiction and then being placed into the foster care system after being found in a closet in a crack house, as SB Nation reported, Hageman has overcome a lot to get to where he is now, on the cusp of being selected in the 2014 NFL draft. Building on his own intestinal fortitude; a rare combination of size, strength and athleticism; and the support of a strong adoptive family and many others; Hageman has blossomed from a raw but gifted high school tight end into one of the best defensive tackles in the nation, which is why he is likely to be a first-round pick in May.
During the 2012 season Hageman used his playing strength and shocking quickness, for such a big man, to flash game-changing ability, but it was not until his senior year that he produced at a high enough level to warrant the NFL's attention. That is not to say that he was a dominant player at Minnesota, as he still struggled greatly with consistency this past season both in terms of production and effort, but he made big strides. Considering he did not play defensive line until he got to college, he is still learning and developing at the position. After his breakout 2013 season, he further helped his draft status with a dominant week of practice at the Senior Bowl in and came to the combine hoping to continue this upward trend.
Although Hageman has not received the national publicity this week for having a great combine, the truth is that he did well and definitely kept the needle moving upward. He checked in at 6-foot-5 7/8 and 310 pounds with 34 ¼-inch arms and impressed in testing by running a 5.02 40, vertical jumping 35 ½ inches and bench pressing 225 pounds 32 times. As impressive was his work during the defensive line positional drills, where his impressive display of foot quickness, agility and balance proved to many that his athleticism gives him the versatility to be productive in any defensive scheme. However, that performance also raises questions as to why he did not dominate consistently at Minnesota.
What is immediately apparent when evaluating Hageman's game film is that he can defeat blocks with his strength and athleticism, but he does not impact games consistently. When he maintains good leverage/pad-level and uses hands aggressively, he makes it look easy jolting and driving the blocker backward as if he was on skates and is able to shed the block and make plays behind the line of scrimmage. However, more often he pops upright at the snap and leaves his chest open, and blockers are able to get a good fit which keeps him from impacting the play. At his best, Hageman's combination of height, long arms, playing strength and quickness reminds me of longtime NFL star defensive linemen Richard Seymour, which is what excites NFL teams so much. He could be a star as a defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme or as a defensive end in a 3-4 defense.
Unfortunately, Hageman often does not play with the technique, passion or intensity necessary to be a disruptive force and disappears for long stretches of each game. While some of his struggles can be attributed to lack of experience playing the position, he has not displayed the instincts and awareness top defenders usually have. His questionable football instincts show up in his often being a beat late moving at the snap and a lack of awareness dealing with different types of blocks. His lateness off the ball allows offensive lineman who lack his physical gifts to reach block him surprisingly well and to get set in pass protection before he makes contact with them. He does not feel side blocks coming, can be ridden down the line too easily and lacks awareness of coming low/cut blocks, which slows him down. Despite having the physical tools to be a top pass rusher, he is not consistently productive because he often plays too upright and lacks any real pass-rush moves other than a bull rush.
If I were to evaluate Hageman solely for his on-field play, he would get a third-round grade, but his rating for pure talent is that of a top-10 pick. So the trick for NFL teams is determining if Hageman's inconsistent production is due to a lack of experience playing defensive line (and that as he continues to learn and develop at this position he will improve) or a lack of true desire/passion for playing the game (which likely would never change). Regardless of the answer to that question, I believe that because Hageman is a good young man with tremendous physical talent, he will be drafted in the first round, but the quality of his play at the next level is still far from a sure thing.
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Russ Lande writes about college scouting and the NFL draft for Sports on Earth. He is GM Jr. scouting and college scouting director for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and the Big Ten Network. He is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and former scouting administrator for the St. Louis Rams. You can follow him @RUSSLANDE.