The news that Joe Haden entered the NFL COVID-19 protocol on Wednesday was disheartening for the Steelers for a number of reason.
First, Haden is the team’s top cornerback and critical piece of the puzzle to stopping the Baltimore Ravens this Sunday, something the Steelers must do if they hope to continue their 2022 season.
Haden will likely be replaced by Ahkello Witherspoon, who has come on strong in recent weeks, with Arthur Maulet and James Pierre seeing elevated playing time in the Nickel and Dime packages.
That sounds like a combination that could work for the Steelers, but in practice, it has not. Since the start of the 2020 season, when Haden is in the starting lineup, the Steelers are 19-5-1. Without him, they’re 1-7.
The second reason for consternation about his potential absence Sunday is that Haden’s contract is set to expire. He had been open to signing an extension to stay and perhaps finish his career in Pittsburgh, but said through his agent as he hit the regular season that he would instead hit the free agent market next spring.
The thought that Haden might have spent his last game in Black and Gold, and will finish his time in Pittsburgh being forced to the sideline for the final game of the season by COVID-19 in consecutive seasons, is certainly an emotionally disheartening one for fans of the team.
It’s also not a great feeling for the future of the position with the club. It’s no secret that the Steelers have struggled to draft and develop cornerbacks.
2019 third-round pick Justin Layne has been soundly passed by rookie free agent Pierre. Of five players take in the first four rounds from 2015-17, only Cam Sutton has panned out, and it took until his fifth season to become a regular starter.
The Steelers used free agency to build up the position, signing Haden in 2017 and Steven Nelson in 2019. But Nelson was a cap casualty this offseason.
If the team can’t afford to re-sign the 32-year-old Haden, who would likely be willing to give the team at least a bit of a discount to stay here to finish the career, it doesn’t seem likely that they’d be able to afford any other starting-caliber cornerback in free agency, either.
The Steelers don’t negotiate during the season, as per their long-standing protocol. But there’s no reason they can’t keep Haden from hitting free agency one the season is over.
After pushing a bunch of 2021 salaries into the future, they don’t have an overflowing bounty of cap space in 2022, but the team’s inability to address that position in the draft, combined with the number of other needs the club has, means that Haden’s spot should be one the team looks to keep from opening.