He’s only been with the team for about seven months, but the Pittsburgh Steelers have to be looking toward cornerback Joe Haden as the new veteran leader for their secondary after they released their three longest-tenured players this offseason in cornerback William Gay and safeties Mike Mitchell and Robert Golden.
Among the defensive backs currently on the roster, Haden is by far the most accomplished, as well as the most experienced, as he enters his ninth season in the NFL, having originally been drafted in 2010. Despite that, he will only be turning 29 next month. Even Coty Sensabaugh is older than him, and he has a good chance of not making the 53-man roster.
While there is safety J.J. Wilcox, heading into his sixth season, he, too, has only been with the team for about seven months, and is a far less accomplished player who should also not yet be counted upon to make the roster without competition, especially at a salary in excess of $3 million.
Everybody else has more or less gotten here since 2016. The most experienced of these players are Artie Burns at cornerback and Sean Davis at safety, the top two picks in the 2016 draft class for the Steelers. While they have entered the starting lineup, neither has yet to put together a really strong season.
Mike Hilton is the other player of note, and he just made the jump from the practice squad to the 53-man roster.
When the Steelers signed Haden to a three-year, $27 million deal, they did so knowing that he was not just a good cornerback, but also that he was a good locker room presence, and now they are counting on him to step up and take over the position group as his own.
It’s a fairly common occurrence to bring in a veteran when you have a position group full of relatively young players. After Hines Ward retired, for example, the Steelers brought in Jerricho Cotchery at wide receiver, and he was a valuable presence even before he finally carved out a role in the slot.
So while he may not have been with the team for a very long time, I’m betting that Haden is taking on a big role behind the scenes, beyond just being viewed as the Steelers’ top cornerback. This offseason is as important for his growth with the team off the field as it is on it.
Perhaps it helps that the entire group will be shifting into new areas this offseason thanks to the resignation of former defensive backs coach Carnell Lake, who chose to return to California to spent time with his family.
He was replaced on the coaching staff by Tom Bradley, who is best-known for his lengthy history at Penn State, where he has worn a number of different hats all the way up to head-coaching responsibilities, but he has been specifically a defensive backs coach as well. Haden and Bradley will help shape what this unit is in 2018.