Finally, the Cleveland Browns' future looks a little brighter. They were not about to risk losing one of the main reasons why.
Cornerback Joe Haden signed a five-year contract extension Tuesday, carrying his existing deal, which was set to expire after 2014, through the 2019 season. The extension reportedly is worth $68 million total, with $23 million fully guaranteed and another $22 million guaranteed in the event of injury.
At $13.6 million per season, Haden shot past the deal recently handed to Richard Sherman -- an average of around $12 million over the next four years, for a grand total of $57.4 million. Given Sherman's emergence as arguably the premier shutdown corner in the NFL and his impact on Seattle's Super Bowl win, the commitment made by Cleveland toward Haden obviously places a great deal of trust in the 25-year-old corner.
And why not?
Haden, the seventh-overall pick in 2010, is coming off his first Pro Bowl berth and has secured the Browns' top cornerback job. His best may be yet to come, too, especially now that Cleveland used another top-10 pick on Oklahoma State CB Justin Gilbert last weekend, providing Haden with adequate help across the field for really the first time during his tenure.
"He was the No. 1 dude I had on the board as a cornerback," Haden told the Browns' website of Gilbert.
Haden and Gilbert are now penciled in as the starting cornerbacks for at least the next four or five seasons.
"This is a great day for both Joe Haden and the Cleveland Browns," said GM Ray Farmer, who was among the front-office stars of the 2014 draft. "Joe’s a good, young player who’s made a commitment to our organization, and he’s somebody with whom we want to move forward in order to advance our football team. ...
"He’s the right guy to both build with and build around as we attempt to become an elite football team."
Farmer traded down from the No. 4 pick to No. 9, then moved back up to No. 8 so he could select Gilbert. Later in Round 1, Farmer then dropped the hammer, grabbing the 22nd pick and with it QB Johnny Manziel. The Manziel addition energized the Cleveland fan base -- several thousand season tickets were sold over the remainder of draft weekend.
Cleveland's celebration was somewhat stunted, as less than 24 hours later word leaked that star WR Josh Gordon could be facing a year-long suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy, and that fellow receiver Nate Burleson had suffered a broken arm during OTAs.
At the heart of any improvement under new coach Mike Pettine, though, will be the defense. Pettine came to Cleveland having produced ample success on that side of the ball; passing on the likes of Sammy Watkins for Gilbert (and an extra draft choice) only hammered home that Pettine wants to create an aggressive, athletic unit.
The Browns would have been hard-pressed to find any available cornerbacks who fit that description better than Haden. Turning Haden into the NFL's highest-paid CB comes with some inherent risk and expectations for Haden's performance. Cleveland did, however, have plenty of cap space to play with, both now and in the future. Per the NFL Players' Association, Cleveland was more than $29 million under the 2014 cap as of Tuesday morning. The $68 million contract for Haden will not kick in officially until next offseason, but the Browns should arrive there with a similarly friendly outlook.
Even if Farmer has to reevaluate a few situations down the road to fit in Haden's contract, it probably will be worth it. Between Haden, Manziel, Gilbert, TE Jordan Cameron, RB Ben Tate and an impressive offensive line, the Browns at long last may have a sturdy foundation in place.
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