BEREA: Browns captain and two-time Pro Bowl selection Joe Haden would like to outshine Washington’s Josh Norman on Sunday, thereby proving he’s the top cornerback on the field.
Haden, though, will need to work his way back onto the field first and he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to do so for the upcoming game.
“He’s one of my friends, a really good competitor,” Haden said of Norman, a Pro Bowl selection last season with the Carolina Panthers. “I love watching great corner play, so definitely I want to go. I want to go out and put my stuff up against what he’s got going on, so it’s always about competing. I love to try to be the best corner on the field whenever I’m playing, so it would definitely be a good experience to be out there.”
The Browns (0-3) hope Haden is out there when they face Washington (1-2) at FedExField. ProFootballFocus.com ranks him as the No. 6 cornerback in the NFL. Norman is ranked No. 3.
The good news is Haden returned to practice Wednesday on a limited basis. He looked sharp while participating in individual drills during the brief portion open to reporters.
Asked if he’s hopeful Haden will be able to play Sunday, coach Hue Jackson said, “very much so.”
Haden missed 11 of 16 games last season because of two concussions and other injuries, then underwent surgery on his left ankle March 16. He worked tirelessly while rehabilitating in the offseason, and it paid off when he started this season with strong performances, including one of the best games of his career.
PFF gave Haden the highest grade of any Browns defender Sept. 18 in their 25-20 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. He tied a career high with two interceptions and had two other passes defensed. His 18 interceptions tied Earl Little for the most by a Browns player since 1999.
But Haden encountered a setback four days later. He suffered a strained groin muscle in practice on Sept. 22 while covering practice-squad wide receiver Darius Jennings.
He jogged around the field and stretched Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium before the Browns faced the Miami Dolphins in what would be a 30-24 overtime loss. But Jackson’s game-time decision was to make Haden inactive.
“I was hoping to play every game this season,” Haden said. “I was working my butt off to be out there with my guys. It’s super disappointing and upsetting because you want to be out there, but you physically can’t.”
The performance of Dolphins wide receiver Jarvis Landry made Haden’s predicament sting even more. Landry caught seven passes for 120 yards and a touchdown. His 32-yard reception in overtime set up running back Jay Ajayi’s game-winning, 11-yard rushing touchdown.
Had Haden played, he almost certainly would have been matched up against Landry.
“It’s always tough when I feel like I can make a difference in the games, and not being out there sucks,” Haden said. “It’s tough knowing the fans and the team and everybody wants me to be out there, and I want to be out there more than anybody.”
You know who doesn’t want Haden to play?
Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins and the rest of the organization.
“He’s a turnover machine,” Washington coach Jay Gruden, the former offensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals, said during a conference call. “Being from Cincinnati and going against him six times, I know that he’s somebody to deal with. He has got great, great, great ball skills. He gave [Bengals five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver] A.J. Green fits.
“I know what type of player he is — Pro Bowler. If he’s up, we’ll have to deal with him, and Kirk will have to know where he is at all times.”
In a 45-word answer on a conference call, Cousins called Haden “very elite” twice.
“He’s certainly one of the better players we’ll face all season,” Cousins said.
Opponents didn’t need to fear Haden last season the way they had in 2013 and 2014, when he made the Pro Bowl in back-to-back seasons. He started the 2015 season with some uncharacteristic, lackluster outings, and by the third game, injuries began to plague him.
So Haden proved something to rest of the NFL — and himself — by thriving against the Ravens in the second game this season.
“I was just happy to be able to go out there and make plays,” he said. “That’s what I love to do. That’s when I’m in my comfort zone — when I’m out there on the field. All the rehab, all the treatment, all the extra hours I put in going through surgery, and to go out there and play is reassuring. I felt like I still had it. I didn’t feel like I lost a step.”
His teammates had faith he could rebound from last year.
“I always knew that he was going to be a dominant player,” nose tackle Danny Shelton said. “Just to see him make those plays, it’s really just calming.”
So the defense would receive a palpable boost if Haden were to return to action against Washington. Veteran cornerback Tramon Williams sat out practice Wednesday with a sprained shoulder he suffered against the Dolphins, so the Browns could be missing two of their top three corners if Haden were to remain idle.
By the way, Washington has the NFL’s No. 2-ranked passing attack with 330.7 yards per game.
“We definitely want to have our best players out there,” Shelton said.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.