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Healthy Joe Haden motivated to bounce back, live up to huge contract

Two-plus years of injuries and struggles on the field have left a bad taste in Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden’s mouth. He looks to rebound in Gregg Williams’ aggressive defensive front, a scheme he very well may flourish in — if he can stay on the field.

Cleveland Browns v Buffalo Bills Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

You can debate just how high up the NFL echelons Joe Haden climbed during his peak in 2014. You can’t deny, though, that he played well enough on his rookie contract to earn a five-year, $67.5 million deal with over $45 million guaranteed. Because that happened. And he went to the NFL Pro Bowl twice in the process, the first after his impressive 2013 season and again the next year.

But things haven’t continued to trend upwards for the once-revered defensive back. He has, possibly somewhat due to multiple nagging injuries, spiraled in the opposite direction since that big pay day before the 2015 season.

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone seemingly more upset about it than the former Pro Bowl cornerback.

“Not being able to be the player I wanted to be for the past two years, it definitely motivated me to go after my surgery, attack my rehab and just get after it as hard as I possibly could,” Haden said to media before the start of Browns training camp. “I know that I do have a lot to prove.”

A motivated and healthy Haden is something the Browns need if they hope to improve their beleaguered secondary. They also didn’t necessarily do much to upgrade the position, drafting Howard Wilson in the fourth round and signing aging veteran Jason McCourty not-withstanding.

Hopefully Haden’s potential return to form meets the team’s defensive transformation in stride. According to him, Williams won’t ask his cornerbacks to do very much, so he won’t have much adjusting to do.

“It is just about making sure everyone wins their one on ones, but the secondary doesn’t do too much changing,” Haden said, describing Williams’ expectations for his defensive backs. “It is more about his scheme with the linebackers and the front seven.”

While focusing on getting pressure on the quarterback and letting defensive backs win their individual matchups sounds like good clean fun, winning one-on-one has been a problem for Haden in the past. We can attribute some of those recent struggles to injuries, sure, but there are some real concerns about his ability — before the last two seasons, even when healthy — to contain shiftier or speedier receivers.

He’s allowed several big plays during his decline after double-moves left him peaking in the backfield, a couple missteps coming during the most crucial points of games. What do the names Cecil Shorts, Antonio Brown, T.Y. Hilton and Chris Hogan all have in common?

They’re all members of the Burnt Joe Haden Toast Club©.

Haden’s owed a lot of money over the next three seasons. Luckily the Browns have plenty of cap space, enough so that they probably won’t have to consider trading him if his injuries and struggles linger. He’s one of the team’s cornerstone players and still probably better than anyone they snag off the waiver wire to replace him. At least we think so.

He’s a good player, a good guy and there’s no denying his successes, but he’s got to do as he says and bring it this season. Haden staying healthy and performing at a high level will help keep the front office from having some difficult conversations as 2017 progresses, and it’ll help make the young but budding Browns defense that much more formidable as the team looks to rise from the cellar of the AFC.