Joe Haden isn’t just talking. He’s raving.
A mile-wide grin lights up his face as he thrusts his right fist into the open palm of his left hand with excitement. In the equipment room at the Cleveland Browns' headquarters in Berea, Ohio, the All-Pro cornerback, dressed in his post-practice garb of a Nike zip-up, black shorts stretching past his knees and Air Jordan sandals, has trouble containing his love for the team’s upgraded secondary.
“[Gilbert,] Desir, Trufant, Skrine,” he says, rattling off the last names of his defensive backfield brethren. “They can all play. We’ve really got no holes.”
It’s early June, and the Browns are wrapping up Organized Team Activities (OTAs), the second-to-last week of work before they break until training camp opens in late July. Since the team’s return to the league in 1999, early summer has been the best time of year for both Browns fans and players—the team hasn’t lost a game yet, its coach hasn’t been fired and its quarterback situation (a recurring source of despair) is looking up for the first time in years.
But it’s the team’s moves in the secondary that has Haden so excited. The Browns replaced safety T.J. Ward, who left via free agency, with Donte Whitner, who spent the last few years competing for championships with the 49ers. They drafted Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert with the eighth overall pick in May's NFL Draft, then nabbed another, Pierre Desir, in the third round. Include returning vet Buster Skrine and off-season signee Isaiah Trufant, and you have a crew that’s calling itself the “Lock Down on the Lake,” referring to Lake Erie, just north of their home turf at First Energy Stadium.
At just 25 years old, Haden is the leader of the bunch. He’s been in Cleveland for all five years of his pro career, and he's coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance, having earned a coveted reputation as a “shutdown corner,” an honor bestowed only upon top-tier defenders like Seattle’s Richard Sherman and Arizona’s Patrick Peterson, who routinely cover their opponent’s best wide receiver. According to Pro Football Focus, Haden covered the opposing team’s No. 1 pass catcher on 65 percent of plays in 2013, more than both Peterson (55 percent) and Sherman (27 percent). Haden didn’t allow a single receiver to gain 100 yards on him last season, and he gave up just six touchdowns all year while covering guys like Calvin Johnson, Jordy Nelson, Antonio Brown and A.J. Green (twice).
But despite his individual greatness, Haden does not yet have a playoff appearance on his résumé. He’s striving to make 2014 the year the Browns finally get near the top of the endless staircase they’ve been climbing in the hopes of returning to relevance. To help his team get there, Haden has set a lofty goal: limit every opposing receiver he faces to 55 yards or less per game.
“That’s my personal goal. No matter who it is, whoever I follow, I keep under 55 yards,” he said.
To accomplish this ambitious goal, Haden has changed his off-the-field regimen. As a rookie, the defensive back from the University of Florida showed up daily at the facility, played football and went home. No stretching, no cold tubs, no nothing. But he’s older now and a veteran of the game, so that’s all changed.
“I was used to going out there and playing football and going home,” Haden said. “Now I stretch, get a massage every week, and get in the hot tub and cold tubs. I do a lot of things, like taking care of my legs, that I didn’t do as a rookie. Your job is your body.”
Haden's other focus this season is to improve his footwork, allowing him to shadow even the quickest, most elusive receivers, like Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers, whom the Browns will face in Week 1 (and Week 6), or T.Y. Hilton of the Indianapolis Colts, a Week 14 foe. He’s so committed that he strolls around his home moving his feet as he would during practice.
“I do a lot of footwork drills," Haden said. "Even walking around the house, I take two steps back and two forward, practicing making sure I put my whole foot in the ground during my breaks.”
A drill Haden favors, one that teaches him to explode out of his break, is the “W-Drill.”
Joe Haden's W-Drill
- Set up five cones in the shape of a W, with the cones 5 yards apart.
- Start at the first cone with your back turned to the second.
- Backpedal to Cone 2.
- Explode at a 45-degree angle to Cone 3.
- Repeat the move from Cone 4 to Cone 5.
- The goal of the drill is to increase agility and reaction time for a defensive back coming out of his break.
“You don’t ever waste a step,” Haden said. “Once you put that clamp foot down, the next step is going to where you need to go.”
Haden’s jubilance dissipates as the day winds down. With OTAs done for the day, many players have gone home, and the locker room is silent. For Haden, "silence" is the perfect word for what he hopes to do to receivers this year to help the Browns finally make some noise in the playoffs.