By TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) — Joe Haden only needed a few hours to find a team that wanted him.
It’s a squad he’s very familiar with.
Goodbye, Cleveland. Hello, Pittsburgh.
Cut earlier in the day by the Browns after seven seasons, the two-time Pro Bowl cornerback signed a three-year, $27 million contract Wednesday with the rival Steelers, who are giving the 28-year-old a chance to exact some revenge on a team that doesn’t think he can play anymore.
Haden passed his physical and he’s now on the other side of a once-heated rivalry that has become utterly lopsided.
The Steelers posted a photo on Twitter of a smiling Haden signing his contract. The sight had to make the stomachs turn of some Browns fans.
In seven seasons with Cleveland, Haden went just 2-12 against the Steelers and his signing will add some luster to this season’s opener when Pittsburgh visits Cleveland on Sept. 10.
Instead of trying to cover Antonio Brown or intercept quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, he’ll be teammates with Big Ben and on a team with a legitimate chance at making the playoffs — or more.
The Browns are still rebuilding and they felt Haden had become too expensive and too injury prone. After failing to find a trade partner — Cleveland remains in search of a wide receiver — or convincing Haden to take a pay cut, they terminated his contract.
Under the five-year, $67.5 million extension he signed with Cleveland in 2014, Haden was due to make $11.1 million this season, $11.2 million next year and $10.4 million in 2019. Releasing Haden cost the Browns $3.2 million in salary cap space this season and next season.
With the Browns, he was always assigned the opponent’s best wide receiver and more than held his own against Brown, Cincinnati’s A.J. Green and others. He’s been slowed by injuries the past two seasons, but as late as Tuesday, Browns coach Hue Jackson was praising Haden’s performance this summer.
“Joe gave everything he had for the Cleveland Browns and that’s all you can ask for as a coach,” Jackson said in a statement. “He was a leader on and off the field. I wish him all the best as he continues his career.”
Haden played in just 18 games — he missed 11 in 2015 with a concussion — the past two seasons because of injuries, fighting to stay on the field each week last season despite a serious groin injury that required offseason surgery.
New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and his staff didn’t view Haden as an asset and will likely move veteran Jason McCourty into his starting spot alongside Jamar Taylor.
A former Florida standout, Haden was one of Cleveland’s most visible players. He often attended Cavaliers games and sat courtside to cheer on LeBron James and his teammates. Haden owned a sneaker store in downtown Cleveland, hosted youth camps in Northeast Ohio and in 2015 became the first professional football player to serve as a Special Olympics global ambassador.
Haden posted a thank you to Cleveland fans on his Instagram account.
“I would first like to take the time to thank the Browns fans all around the world from the bottom of my heart for making Cleveland a happy home for me for the past 7 years,” Haden wrote.
“I also want to thank the coaches, the organization and especially my teammates who have become family. My God doesn’t make mistakes and I know the future is bright.”
Browns Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas reached out to Haden via Twitter.
“You will truly be missed my man!” Thomas wrote. “You were always the consummate; teammate, professional, and friend. I wish you much success in the future!!”
Haden appeared in 90 games for the Browns, starting 81. He compiled 376 tackles, 101 passes defensed, 19 interceptions, forced four fumbles and four recovered fumbles. Last season, he recorded 48 tackles, 11 passes defensed and tied for a team high three interceptions.
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