Monday, September 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Joe Haden no longer elite, but worth the risk for the Steelers

This isn't about whether Joe Haden can recapture his elite form. It's about whether he's an upgrade on Ross Cockrell and Coty Sensabaugh, and unless he shows up in a body cast, I have to believe he is.

Give the Steelers credit. Just not too much.

They were desperate, because even after getting shredded by Tom Brady (again) in the AFC title game, they returned for 2017 with the cornerback spot opposite Artie Burns very much up for grabs among several questionable candidates, none of whom seized the job.

Shaky incumbent Ross Cockrell struggled. Journeyman Coty Sensabaugh looked just okay. Rookie third-round pick Cam Sutton got injured. The slot position, meanwhile, remains a tug-o-war between William Gay and Mike Hilton.

In other words, the Steelers didn't exactly make cornerback a top priority in the offseason. When I asked defensive coordinator Keith Butler early in camp why anyone should believe things will be different, given the lack of dramatic change, he basically said, well, the pass rush should be better so that'll make it easier to cover people.

So yes, the Steelers were desperate. But give them credit for jumping all over Haden the instant the Browns cut the former Gator standout on Wednesday.

The Steelers saw free agent linebacker Dont'a Hightower leave their offices without a deal during the offseason. They weren't going to let Haden do the same. He reportedly could have made more money elsewhere. The Steelers obviously sold him on staying. And in signing him to a three-year, $27 million deal ($7 million guaranteed in Year One, though we do not know the guarantees after that), they basically admitted that they have failed in every conceivable way, over several years, to adequately fortify the cornerback position in a pass-happy league.

They have failed via trade (hello, Brandon Boykin and Justin Gilbert), via the draft (paging Curtis Brown & Co.) and via the scrap heap. At times, they strangely ignored the position in the draft.

Bad luck (Senquez Golson) played a role in the ongoing struggle, bad evaluations a much bigger one.

So they took a chance. They did something about it. They're trying to correct their mistakes. They threw some money at a still-young but oft-injured talent in the 28-year-old Haden. I would have preferred they throw an offer sheet at Malcolm Butler during the offseason, but that would have cost a first-round draft pick. This just costs them money.

Worst case, Haden gets injured again or shows he can't play anymore. If I'm the Steelers, I'm willing to take that chance — and then I'm hoping Sutton comes along fast.

One thing you have to love about Haden, in addition to his pedigree and production, is a compete level that's off the charts.

He is coming off double-groin surgery. That's the bad news. Well, that plus the concussion that ended his 2015 season and other recent injuries. The good news is that he insisted on playing through those groin injuries last season even after all hope was gone (the Browns usually reach that point in September).

It might take him a while to round into form, but even if Haden doesn't play Thursday against Carolina, the Steelers still have one more exhibition tune-up: Sept. 10 in Cleveland, where the Browns will trot out their 27th starting quarterback (DeShone Kizer) since 1999.

Something tells me Haden will be up for that one. He could have stayed with the Browns for $7 million this season. He took the exact same amount to play for the Steelers.

Back when he was coming off surgery, Haden tweeted, "Groin surgery went Great! Rehab starts now!! First team all pro here I come!!! No excuses just RESULTS!!"

That last part could be said for the Steelers' entire secondary, the entire defense and the entire team. People really aren't interested in the details anymore. They want results.

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