There is only one moment in his professional career in which Joe Haden has ever not been ‘the guy’, and it doesn’t last long at all. On the same day that the Cleveland Browns released him on August 30, 2017, the Pittsburgh Steelers signed him to a three-year, $27 million contract.
Five years later, he’s still the team’s number one cornerback, going into his 12th NFL season, but he knows the game. He’s 32 years old, and not many cornerbacks can play outside at a high enough level for teams to justify leaving him out there. He sees the future on the roster, and he knows it’s not him.
“I think Cam is on pace for a CB1”, he told Mark Kaboly of The Athletic recently, about Cameron Sutton, entering his fifth season, and first as a full-time starter. “He is just trying to prove himself to the coaches and everybody else that he can play outside corner for an entire season. It is a little different game outside. Any time I would miss and Cam Sutton would come in, he would ball out. He has always had the skill set, but we had me and Steven Nelson outside last year and I knew if he was gone that Cam could hold it down”.
Drafted in the third round in 2017 out of Tennessee, Sutton has struggled to find opportunities. First, he was injured in his rookie training camp, and spend most of the year on the Reserve/Injured List. Then they signed Haden just before the season started, and Mike Hilton emerged out of nowhere as the answer to the nickel position.
Two years later, with the Artie Burns experiment winding to a close, the front office refused to be complacent, and they signed Steven Nelson in free agency to start opposite Haden, with Hilton still there in the slot. So he was stuck behind them.
He did get opportunities, due to injuries to Haden, to start a game in each of his first two seasons. He was pulled from his second start in 2018 in favor of Coty Sensabaugh, who would then start over Burns when Haden got back soon after.
But he still logged more than 600 defensive snaps over the course of his first three seasons, and last year, firmly in the dime role, he ended up starting seven more games, including the postseason, with one on the right in place of Nelson, two on the left in Haden’s place, and four in the slot for Hilton.
With Nelson and Hilton gone, he is now a full-time starter on the outside in Nelson’s place, re-signed in free agency on a two-year, $9 million deal. If he shows that he is capable of being a top cornerback, he’s going to sign a much bigger extension a year from now, you can be sure of that.