CHARLOTTE, N.C. – When Mike Tomlin woke up on Wednesday morning, he had no idea he was about to hit the lottery.
How else would you explain a situation where a team needing help at cornerback is able to sign a legitimate starting caliber cornerback capable of playing man-to-man who has been voted to two Pro Bowls, is 28 years old, is respected in the locker room of the team that cut him as a good teammate, and is known in that city as someone willing to give his time to the community.
And when you get a player like him without having to give up anything off your own roster in return, and then sign him to a contract that won't preclude you from doing business with the players you want to sign to contract extensions before the start of the regular season, how else would you describe it other than hitting the lottery?
Within a 24-hour span late in the 2017 preseason, the Pittsburgh Steelers went from having a noticeable deficiency at cornerback to having two legitimate starting-caliber players there. That's the impact of adding Joe Haden less than two weeks before the regular season opener, which by the way happens to be against the team that unceremoniously cut him – the Cleveland Browns.
There had been rumors circulating through the NFL grapevine that the Browns were looking for Haden to take a pay cut from the $11.1 million salary he was owed for 2017 on a contract that was then to pay him in the neighborhood of $21.5 million for 2018-19.
Haden's agent is Drew Rosenhaus, and while there are many adjectives that have been used by NFL teams to describe Rosenhaus, no one ever said he wasn't savvy in the ways of working the system. Of course Rosenhaus advised against Haden taking a pay cut, and of course that made trading him almost impossible because whatever team might be interested in such an arrangement would have had to be willing to pay nearly $35 million plus player or draft pick compensation for a 28-year old cornerback who has had recent injury issues.
That then forced the Browns' hand, and as could've been predicted, Haden was cut on Wednesday afternoon, and as a vested veteran he was able to sign with any team at whatever price was negotiated by Rosenhaus. A few hours later, Haden was at the Steelers team hotel in Charlotte yukking it up with his new teammates after passing a physical with his signature on a new three-year contract.
Haden is 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, and he turned 28 in April. He has played in two Pro Bowls, and in 90 career games he has 19 interceptions, with a career-high six of those in his rookie year. He was the seventh overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, the same draft in which the Steelers picked his college teammate, Maurkice Pouncey, with the 18th overall pick, and the Steelers liked what they saw in him even then.
Haden was, by far, the top-ranked cornerback in that draft class, and the top-ranked cornerback in a draft class never ever lasts until the 18th overall pick of the first round, and yet Haden made all the time in the world to meet with Tomlin and General Manager Kevin Colbert whenever they were interested. At the Combine, at his Pro Day, even though the Steelers knew they'd have no chance to pick him and Haden had to know the same thing. But the seeds of a relationship were sown during that process, and those seeds blossomed yesterday.
Just to be clear, Haden wasn't signed by the Steelers to lead the band at halftime. He will be installed at his natural position of left cornerback, which will enable Artie Burns to move to his more natural position of right cornerback. Because Haden has played for Ray Horton on two different occasions, and because Horton was schooled under long-time Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the belief is that Haden should be able to pick up his new team's terminology in a matter of days. The Steelers plan is to throw Haden "into the deep end of the pool" and then let his play be their guide from there, but there seemed to be little doubt within the Steelers that they acquired a starting cornerback.
The Steelers see Haden as a highly competitive, athletic cornerback with man-coverage skills and ball skills, a player used to lining up opposite the opponent's best receiver, a cornerback used to being the No. 1 guys at his position on whatever team he happened to be playing for at the time. And because of the way the whole thing unfolded, it became clear to the Steelers that Haden wanted to come here. He had options, but there was very little exploration of those once the Steelers showed him they were as interested in him as he was interested in them.
Even though Haden had been plagued with injuries during the last couple of seasons, he hadn't missed any practice time this summer and had started in each of the Browns three preseason games. Based on video of those games, the Steelers came away thinking Haden was still Cleveland's No. 1 cornerback and that he was very much in the Browns' plans for 2017.
But then within a span of 24 hours, Haden is a legitimate NFL starting cornerback who's now very much in the Steelers' plans, a proven veteran who will allow Burns to grow without having to be thrust into a role for which he might not yet be ready, a 28-year-old Pro Bowl-caliber player who believes he just got a new lease on his professional life and is ecstatic about it, a man who won national championships in college with Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert, a piece to the defensive puzzle the Steelers were lacking and seemingly had no way of acquiring at this late stage of the process.
No wonder Mike Tomlin looked like he just hit the lottery. And it's very likely Joe Haden feels the same way.