By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: Less than a year after Browns cornerback Joe Haden experienced one of the most difficult periods of his life, he believes he has turned the corner and is on track toward becoming elite.
Haden certainly looked the part Friday, as he and his fellow defensive backs dominated the second full-squad practice of training camp. Haden intercepted a pass quarterback Brandon Weeden threw toward wide receiver Josh Gordon on an out route, then bolted the other way for what would have been a touchdown. A few plays later, he broke up another pass, something that has been a common occurrence this offseason.
The Browns need Haden to continue to shine as they transition from their old 4-3 scheme to new defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s 3-4, multi-front, attacking system with a young, inexperienced secondary. The organization learned first-hand how devastating it can be when Haden can’t be counted on.
The NFL suspended Haden four games this past season for violating its policy on performance-enhancing drugs, the result of a failed drug test he blamed on Adderall use. The news about the suspension broke last year during training camp, created a huge distraction and the Browns went 0-4 as Haden sat out Weeks 2-5.
“It was a humbling thing,” said Haden, the seventh overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. “It was one of the lowest points. Basically, I don’t really like talking about it. But it was a low point in my life, and now everything seems like it’s on the up and up. So I’m just happy and praying every day.”
Haden, 24, believes a stable environment off the field will translate to success on it. He married longtime girlfriend Sarah Mahmoodshahi last month.
“Everything back at home is a lot more settled,” Haden said. “It’s just a security blanket. I’ve got my wife back at home now. It’s not my girlfriend. I don’t have my boys coming over all the time. She’s like, ‘All right, we’re grabbing dinner tonight.’ That’s good. It’s just a lot more relaxed. I have to focus on a whole lot less about my friends coming over, whatever. Just chill with my wife and come out here and do my thing with football.”
New Browns coach Rob Chudzinski has enjoyed watching Haden do his thing. After Haden’s interception, Chudzinski approached him and offered words of encouragement. Haden has already established himself as a solid, No. 1 corner, but Chudzinski believes he has yet to maximize his talent.
“He has potential, and that means he has ability,” Chudzinski said. “If he continues to develop and work on his knowledge, details and drive, then I think he has the ability to fill that potential.
“It’s hard to rank [him among other corners I’ve been around] so early for me. I really need to see. I think Joe’s best days are ahead of him if he continues to work.”
The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Haden played 11 games last season — he also missed one with an injured oblique — and finished with 51 tackles, three interceptions and 10 passes defensed.
The suspension became a major obstacle in what he thought would be a breakout season. It also damaged his reputation and tarnished his status as a fan favorite.
“I mean you know how Cleveland fans are,” Haden said. “At first, it was all bad. It was all bad. But then, I just chilled. That’s what it is. I messed up and when I came back, it was the same love. They just embraced me. I went out there and just had to do what I could do on the field. That’s the only way that you can get back.”
Chudzinski said he wanted to give Haden and the rest of his players a “fresh start” when he was hired in January. Haden views his opportunity with a new regime the same way.
“Last year was last year,” Haden said. “What happened is in the past. So just coming in, I feel like I honestly owe the team, I owe myself, I owe the fans, I owe the Browns just everything I got this year as to keep going and just be elite and hold things down.”
Haden has rewarded the organization this offseason by stepping up more as a leader. Before Friday’s practice, he and strong safety T.J. Ward urged the rest of the defensive backs to get the best of the offense, and the group followed through. Haden also took time to give coaching tips to undrafted rookie cornerback Vernon Kearney between reps.
“Joe has really stepped up as a leader, has stepped up as a professional,” Chudzinski said. “Joe wants to focus on improving and being more consistent, and I see that in his approach. I think he has done a great job in that way, and I’m expecting him to keep getting better and better.”
Haden also hopes to lead the way by playing better than ever. He wants to be considered a top-five corner in the league, and he’s still gunning for his first Pro Bowl appearance.
“Every year that’s the goal,” Haden said. “The goal is to be one of the best at your position and to get recognized there would be special. But I want us to win some games, and if you win games, that gets the whole squad there.”
Ward, a second-round pick in 2010, is convinced everything is falling into place for Haden this offseason.
“This is our fourth year,” Ward said. “Joe’s matured a lot in four years. This is going on kind of our senior year. So if you look at it that way, then we definitely should step up, and Joe has done that immensely. I think he’s going to have a big year. The sky’s the limit for him. I definitely feel he could be the best corner in the league.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.