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Falcons keep draft focus on improving lines
innesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, center, poses for photos with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, right, and former NFL player Claude Humphrey after being selected by the Atlanta Falcons as the 37th pick during the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft on Friday in New York. - photo by Jason DeCrow | Associated Press

FLOWERY BRANCH — The Atlanta Falcons are trying to make good on their promise to get tougher on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

One day after using the No. 6 overall pick on Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews, the Falcons chose Minnesota defensive end Ra'Shede Hageman in the second round of the NFL draft on Friday night.

Coming off a 4-12 record that was their first losing season in six years under coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, the Falcons were pummeled on both lines throughout 2013.

The offense ranked last in rushing. Quarterback Matt Ryan was a career-high 44 times and was pressured 203 times, most in the NFL.

Matthews hopes to help reverse those trends.

"I feel real confident that I can do that," Matthews said when introduced at team headquarters. "I feel real comfortable on the right and left side, so whatever they ask me to do I'm fired up and ready to do it. That's why they drafted me, and I'm going to prove that it was the right decision."

Hageman, the fifth pick of the second round, joins a defense that ranked last in third-down efficiency, second-worst against the run and third-fewest in sacks.

The Falcons plan to play Hageman at defensive end. He started his last 26 games at nose tackle for the Gophers.

"I won't say I'm ready yet, but I'll take on that challenge," Hageman said on a conference call. "Obviously with the good coaching staff they have, I feel like I'm in good hands. I'm just looking forward to it."

Atlanta drafted Wisconsin free safety Dez Southward in the third round even though he was medically excluded from the NFL combine because of spine and wrist injuries.

Southward, a full-time starter in 2012-13, is part of the Falcons' revamping at free safety after five-year starter Thomas DeCoud was released in March.

Dwight Lowery, signed last month as a free agent, and Kemal Ishmael, a seventh-round draft pick last year, are the other free safeties listed on Atlanta's roster.

The Falcons have made a heavy investment on the defensive lines during the offseason.

They signed defensive end Tyson Jackson and defensive tackle Paul Soliai in free agency. Atlanta re-signed starting defensive tackles Jonathan Babineaux, Peria Jerry and Corey Peters.

Atlanta's defense was hampered last year by injuries to linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and defensive end Kroy Biermann. Free safety Thomas DeCoud and cornerback Asante Samuel both underperformed and were released.

Hageman finished 2013 with a career-high 13 tackles for minus-50 yards. The 6-foot, 310-pounder takes as much pride in his vertical jump — 35½ inches — as he does in his ability to pressure the quarterback.

He will compete with Osi Umenyiora, Jackson and Biermann for playing time at end.

"My junior year, I definitely got more sacks, and last year I had to find another way of making plays," Hageman said. "It's just the same as getting sacks, so I'm definitely going to use my vertical as an advantage to swat down balls."

Matthews was seemingly born and raised to play in the NFL.

He's the seventh member of his family to play in the league. His father, Bruce Matthews, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame after 19 seasons with the Houston Oilers, Tennessee Oilers and Tennessee Titans.

Bruce Matthews, at Falcons headquarters on Friday with the rest of his immediate family, said that Jake has a chance to be better than his old man.

"He realizes how he's been blessed, and he doesn't want to waste it," Bruce Matthews said. "He comes in with that attitude and he's ready to get after it. He's not joking when he says he's ready to go to work. He is."

Smith has talked a lot over the last few months about being embarrassed that the Falcons couldn't run the ball effectively or protect Ryan last year.

He believes Jake Matthews adds an important piece to a new foundation, though it's not immediately clear the incoming rookie will play on the left side or right side.

"I think Jake epitomizes what we wanted to address in the offseason," Smith said. "We wanted to get bigger. We wanted to get stronger. We want to control the line of scrimmage, and when you see the skill set that he shows on tape it just pointed us to him. You don't even have to spend but a few minutes with him and you know what kind of person he is."

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