Joe Haden’s exit from the Cleveland Browns was unceremonious, unsurprising and for a team that ended up going 0-16, unnecessary.
Haden was a cap casualty on a team that had a surplus of cap space. Asked to take a pay cut by former Browns GM Sashi Brown, Haden refused, instead requesting a release and freedom from a team he’d given years of service.
The cornerback recently revealed his feelings surrounding his departure and almost immediate signing with division-rival Pittsburgh, for whom Haden will suit up and play in his first career playoff game on Sunday.
“They were going to pay Brock Osweiler $16 million and he’s not even on the team [after being signed and cut this summer],” Haden told Sports Illustrated, “and they wanted to cut money from me!”
At the tail end of that tenure, Haden struggled to stay on the field due to injuries. The former Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback simply wasn’t one anymore and Cleveland didn’t deem him worth his $13.4 million cap number, which placed him in the top eight highest-paid corners in the league, just behind Jacksonville’s A.J. Bouye and ahead of New England’s Stephon Gilmore. Both of those players signed new deals with their respective teams last offseason, while Haden was playing on a contract signed in 2014.
It wasn’t surprising, considering the play didn’t quite match the pay. But Haden was also a key defender drafted by Cleveland in 2010 and was handsomely paid to endure the roughest times in the franchise’s history, culminating for him with 2016’s 1-15 campaign. Thanks to Cleveland’s peculiar frugality — cutting Haden still saddled the Browns with $7.3 million in dead money in 2017 and $3.6 million in 2018 — Haden found a new life in the same division with Pittsburgh, which wasn’t afraid to open the checkbook for the corner, signing him to a three-year, $27 million deal.
Even after losing Haden to a fractured fibula in Week 10, Pittsburgh is still more than pleased with its investment.
“You can’t find a top-10 corner in September; that just doesn’t happen,” Steelers safety Mike Mitchell said. “He was the final piece.”
Placing Haden among the league’s best 10-15 corners is debatable — Pro Football Focus ranks him 68th among NFL cornerbacks in 2017, with his strength predictably lying in coverage — but what isn’t is his contribution to Pittsburgh’s secondary, which had been the team’s weakest position group in the last few years. It’s seen quite the improvement against the pass, finishing the regular season fifth in the league in passing yards allowed per game with an average of 201.1 after ending the 2016 campaign 16th in the league (Cleveland, meanwhile, finished 2017 with the No. 19 unit at 230.2).
Individually, Haden ranked 16th among cornerbacks in receptions per coverage snaps played, allowing just one reception for every 14.4 coverage snaps, per PFF. For comparison, he was 55th in the same metric last season, allowing one reception every 9.5 coverage snaps played. It seems as though the change of scenery was the best thing that could have happened to the 28-year-old.
“Once that happened, once I got released by Cleveland,” Haden said, via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “I just knew that I had a bright future ahead of me.
“I’m just excited that this [Week 17 game] isn’t my last game of the year.”