COLUMN | Cleveland is at the center of Joe Haden's Browns legacy

CLEVELAND - Even in football-crazed Cleveland, basketball and baseball players tend to be more recognizable than their gridiron counterparts. After all, the former two aren't confined to helmets.

For the past seven years in Cleveland, however, Joe Haden has been the exception.

Whether it was sitting courtside at a Cavs game, throwing out the first pitch at Progressive Field or at his Prospect Ave. sneaker shop, Restock, Haden hasn't been hard to find. Not to mention, for better or worse, he also served as the face of Cleveland's football franchise -- albeit during arguably its darkest era.

Only Haden's time in Cleveland came to an end on Tuesday, when the Browns released the 2-time Pro Bowl selection. The 28-year-old Haden had struggled both on the field and with injuries for the past two seasons, and yet his sudden departure still managed to sting the city he's become such a familiar face in -- perhaps largely for reasons beyond football.

The Browns drafted Haden with the No. 7 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft and two months later, LeBron James took his talents to South Beach. And yet, what should have been a devastating time for Cleveland sports fans -- and by extension, the city -- became a time for each to forge their identities, with Haden largely at the forefront.

In what was otherwise a throwaway season for the Cavs -- before the franchise ever drafted Kyrie Irving -- there was Haden sitting courtside with a Baron Davis beard painted on his face, watching a team that would wind up with a 19-63 record. Haden would become a fixture at the Q -- and on Dan Gilbert's perennial NBA lottery jet -- supporting the Cavs to and through James' return to Cleveland in 2014.

It was at his day job, however, where Haden built his biggest following, becoming one of the few first-round picks to live up to his billing for the Browns since the team returned in 1999. It wasn't without growing pains -- Haden missed the first four games of the 2012 season after testing positive for Adderall -- but by 2013 he had hit his stride, as he established himself as one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL with consecutive Pro Bowl selections.

His reign atop the NFL would be a short one, with concussion issues limiting Haden to just five games in 2015. In 2016, he hardly returned to his old form, as anybody versed in advanced analytics will be the first to tell you and even in his best years, he never played for a winner.

Entering 2017, Haden found himself in a sticky spot, playing in a new defensive scheme and on a franchise more focused on the future than the present. His $11.1 million salary likely didn't help either, and the reality is that if he wasn't cut this offseason, he likely would have been a cap casualty next spring.

But that didn't make Tuesday any easier.

When the Cavs traded Irving last week, I wrote that while Cleveland embraced him, he never truly returned the favor.

For Haden, that couldn't be further from the truth. And regardless of what happens next -- for both the team and Haden -- that will always be his Browns legacy.

© 2017 WKYC-TV


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