If you were a coach on the Cleveland Browns, and management just gave away one of your better players, still just 28 years old, for literally nothing in return, how would you feel? Joe Haden had his faults, and heaven knows he has been hurt a lot in recent years, but at a time when the Browns were finally building some goodwill and excitement it's perplexing to other clubs why they would simply release Haden ahead of the 53-man roster cuts.
Well, I have a theory.
Not that it validates or vindicates the outright release of someone considered one of the top corners in the game just a few short years ago, especially for a team that has improved its front seven but still has major concerns about its defensive secondary. Only time will tell how well Haden plays, but the fact that the list of teams to at least make a cursory phone call once the Browns announced his release stood at double digits, and the fact that as of Wednesday afternoon -- before the move even became official on the waiver wire -- a quarter of the NFL was engaged in ongoing talks with agent Drew Rosenhaus is an indication that plenty of people believe Haden can still play.
So what's this all about? Why risk further detaching the coaches from football operations and why risk further imperiling the tenuous relationships between those sides of the building with a move like this, considering the Browns won a single game last season, aren't overloaded with blue chip players and have had more cap space most offseasons than most of the rest of the league combined?
Well, as soon as I heard the Browns were actively shopping Haden early this week, and making it clear they wanted to move his contract, my thoughts turned immediately to the player with maybe the worst contract in NFL history: the Brock Lobster. None other than Brock Osweiler himself, who is probably in reality the No. 4 quarterback in Cleveland but who is due to make a fully guaranteed $16 million this season.
Haden, who has been an injury casualty as noted and whose $11 million base salary was one of the highest on the team, would have had the entirety of that contract guaranteed for injury if still on the roster next week. So you do the math. The Browns saved just over $7 million in cap space by jettisoning Haden now and another couple of million on draft bust Cam Erving by trading him to the Chiefs. By dumping those deals, the $16 million down the drain after trading for Osweiler doesn't sting quite as strongly.
As noted at the time, I applaud the Browns mightily for orchestrating the Osweiler transaction, and in essence transforming cash and cap space into a high draft pick in taking Brock Brock Til You Drop off the Texans hands after his miserable 2016 campaign. And I still like the trade now. But let's take it for what it is.
The Browns are all-in on rookie DeShone Kizer, they have their system-guy/cheap backup in Cody Kessler and they'd really like to keep developmental passer Kevin Hogan around (knowing if they try to stash him on the practice squad someone might snatch him). Do they really want a substandard passer making 16 times what the starter makes hanging around the quarterback meetings? Are those the right optics and the smart subplot to launching Kizer's career, especially considering all of the failure in Cleveland trying to find a quarterback the last few decades?
Will Osweiler be the lead-by-example guy? Is he the embodiment of the teacher-on-the-field-model of No. 2 QB? Is he a galvanizing force? Or merely a guy there for the singular purpose that his contract uniquely availed him to be part of a paper transaction that was actually about cap space and draft picks but nothing to do with his ability to quarterback the Browns? Because he was never going to quarterback the Browns as evidenced by the fact the Browns were trying to trade him anywhere else in the league within minutes of their trade papers with the Texans becoming official back in March.
No one is taking Brock Me Amadeus off their hands, no matter how much of the contract they eat, and that must be abundantly clear to them by now. So I'm going with the hunch that the roster machinations this week may be with an eye toward softening the blow when they finally decided to cast Osweiler aside (parting is such sweet sorrow). Maybe I'm wrong, but at least that would make the decision to simply dump Haden make a little more sense.
Of course, if I'm one of the perpetually embattled and in-jeopardy coaches in Cleveland, under trigger-happy owner Jimmy Haslam, that's of little consolation to me. That doesn't make my team any better right now, and the fact that there isn't even a draft pick (or a comp pick) coming back on the other side for a former Pro Bowl talent isn't going to put a smile on my face, either. Even with Haden on the roster it was hard not to wonder about the state of the Browns secondary, and as it currently stands, with Jamar Taylor and Jason McCourty the top veteran corners and not much proven depth behind them, the Browns were by no means dealing from a position of strength.
League sources told me the Browns were seeking a fourth-round pick for Haden that would move to a third-round selection should he meet certain playing time thresholds (again, the injury risk), and the Browns would absorb the $4 million of his salary that was already guaranteed. Seems reasonable enough to me, but to their creditdidn't take the bait, figuring the Browns would cut him soon enough, and damn if they weren't correct (this kind of stuff explains why some teams go so long without winning in a league predicated on economic subsidies and parity).
So now Haden is mulling one-year proposals from clubs, as well as some multi-year offers as well, and numerous teams involved in the bidding tell me it's a fairly furious fight for his services and to line up that initial free-agent visit. The Steelers, Chiefs, Dolphins, Eagles, Saints and 49ers were among those slugging it out, with teams like the Bills and Ravens also monitoring the situation but perhaps not as well-poised to get in the deep end of this pool.
The Steelers have been inquiring about corners for weeks, including high-priced guys like Trumaine Johnson, and in Super Bowl-or-bust mode I wouldn't discount their chances at all. After being in Football Siberia his entire career, seeing life with the Rooneys would be a complete culture shock for him, in the best way possible, and getting two cracks a year at the Browns probably sounds like a good idea to Haden right about now, too. Geographically it's as close as you can get, too, in NFL terms.
Wouldn't that be fitting? Guess who the Browns open up with in Week 1? Guess who could possibly help spoil Kizer's debut? The again, maybe Haden succumbs to injury again. Maybe his play has really slipped. Maybe not paying him $11 million to play this year will prove to be the prudent thing to do and maybe some unknown corner on their roster is primed to shine in the spotlight.
But I know this much: I'd trust the judgement of most of the teams chasing Haden over that of the Browns braintrust, and it's hard to get better when you give proven impact players away.