The NFL’s middle class is still shrinking. With salaries for the best NFL players skyrocketing and young players serving as cheap labor, teams have saved on the salary cap by carving out the veteran talents caught in the middle. And with teams cutting their rosters down from 90 players to 53 before next week’s games, it’s a scary time of year to be a part of that middle tier.
Cornerback Joe Haden is the latest player to fall victim to this trend. Cleveland released one of the best Browns of the past two decades on Wednesday as part of its major youth movement.
And if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right? After the Browns released the Pro Bowler Wednesday, Haden turned down larger offers in order to join the Steelers, according to Adam Schefter. Haden joins Pittsburgh, which thoroughly embarrassed Cleveland during Haden’s tenure, winning 12 of the 14 games the teams have played since the Browns drafted him. The Steelers have serviceable corners with Artie Burns, Ross Cockrell, and William Gay, but adding Haden gives them more depth as they try to put together a championship-caliber defense to match their explosive offense. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is inching toward retirement, and it makes sense for Pittsburgh to put its foot on the gas. The team’s Super Bowl window may begin closing soon.
Sending one of your best players to a division rival would be anathema to most teams, but the Browns appear to have little interest in winning this season, anyway. With a stockpile of draft picks amid a full-on rebuild, the Browns decided that Haden, whose play has slipped in recent years and who carried an $11.2 million cap hit, wasn’t a part of their future plans.
The Browns “aggressively” tried to trade Haden on Tuesday, but couldn’t find any takers for his hefty salary. So on Wednesday, Cleveland ate $4 million to release Haden. But Haden is no longer the Pro Bowl player who had anchored Cleveland’s secondary since he was drafted in 2010. Only 10 cornerbacks allowed more adjusted yards per pass last year than Haden, according to the 2017 Football Outsiders Almanac, and he had surgery in the offseason after multiple groin injuries hampered his performance on the field.
It’s tough to figure out where Haden’s steep decline came from. Part of it could be attributable to injuries, but Cleveland also hasn’t given Haden a threatening pass rush in years and consistently ranked toward the bottom of the league in DVOA’s pressure rate through the past five years. Haden is only 28 years old, the age when most players are smack in the middle of their prime, and he’s now playing on a Super Bowl contender for the first time in his career. He has the talent to see a mid-career resurgence.
Haden’s release is just the first major casualty of the roster cutdown from 90 to 53 players entering Week 1. Expensive and/or injury-prone veterans are often officially replaced by cheaper, less experienced players this week. Some will be able to sign on with teams with Super Bowl aspirations, but for many veterans, getting cut represents an abrupt end to their career.
That won’t be the case for Haden. He may even look back at leaving the lowly Browns to play on a competitive team for the first time in his life as the best thing that’s ever happened in his professional career. Haden’s a middle-class player who managed to sign on with another NFL team this season, but that’s not the rule these days. It’s the exception.
The Cleveland fire sale continued on Wednesday afternoon. Hours after releasing Haden, the Browns traded offensive lineman Cameron Erving, the team’s 2015 first-round pick, to the Kansas City Chiefs for a 2018 fifth-rounder. Like Haden, Erving had been floated around in trade rumors most of Tuesday, but the Browns were able to swing a deal this time because Erving is still on his rookie contract. The Browns now have enough capital to run the 2018 draft, especially if they feel they can find their quarterback of the future.
Browns' current 2018 picks:— Chris Burke (@ChrisBurke_SI) August 30, 2017
Rd 1 (HOU)
Rd 2 (HOU)
Rd 2 (PHI)
Rd 4 (CAR)
Rd 5 (KC)
Rd 6 (PIT)
For a team amid a rebuild, giving up on a young player like the 25-year-old Erving is strange, despite the fact that he has struggled to find a position thus far in his football career. He was moved from tackle to center at Florida State and spent his first year with the Browns as a swing interior lineman. In 2016 he started the final game of the year at right tackle, serving admirably given the abrupt move back to the outside. Nonetheless, the Browns must not have seen the development they had hoped for. Perhaps Kansas City will tap into his potential by providing him a stable position to develop.
This piece was updated after publication to reflect Haden’s signing with the Steelers and the Browns’ Cameron Erving trade.