When it comes to the league's top cornerbacks, the names discussed typically range from the New York Jets' Darelle Revis to the Packers' Tramon Williams and most recently, Lardarius Webb of the Baltimore Ravens.
Haden plays in a smaller market than the other cornerbacks mentioned, which explains his lack of recognition outside of Cleveland. However, his six interceptions and 37 pass deflections in the last two seasons suggest that he should be well known and ranked near the top with the Revises and Webbs.
The former Florida Gator has shined since he's entered the NFL because of his speed, technique, quickness and instincts.
He also possesses the ability to drive on the ball and break up passes with his ball skills, as well as reroute receivers after their release from the line of scrimmage. This forces the receiver to widen their routes, which disrupts the timing of the passing game because all routes are tied into a quarterback's dropback.
An instance of this came against the Cincinnati Bengals, where he forced an incomplete pass intended for wide receiver Jerome Simpson.
Prior to the snap, Haden was tightly aligned across Simpson with an inside shade. This inside shade tells us a few things that Haden is aware of.
The first thing that can be observed from the inside shade alignment by the Browns' cornerback is that he's expecting an inside breaking route from the receiver because the receiver is aligned outside the numbers. Conversely, if he was aligned inside the numbers, Haden would align with an outside shade in order to cut off an expected outside breaking route.
An inside shade also suggests that Haden will be playing man coverage because he's cutting off the middle of the field and using the sideline as help.
When the Bengals' receiver released outside, Haden was initially beaten but quickly recovered and got his outside arm on Simpson's shoulder pad to slow him down.
As Simpson progressed forward to complete his vertical stem, Haden expected an inside breaking route based off his keys before the snap-and-cut off the underneath, which forced Simpson to widen after his break for the dig route.
This not only disrupted the timing with his quarterback, but also forced him to run a deeper route, which makes it more difficult for him to get open.
Haden continued to undercut Simpson and mirror his steps as the route developed, and then put his hands on the receiver once again to further redirect him. This eventually led to Simpson taking an even wider path and an incomplete pass.
The play depicted the natural and developed talents of Joe Haden as he utilized quality technique and foot quickness to disrupt Simpson's route. However, Haden isn't only a boundary cornerback, he can slide into the slot too as witnessed earlier in the game when he aligned across Andre Caldwell.
Contrary to the first play, Haden aligned with a large cushion before the snap across Caldwell and focused his eyes on the quarterback, implying zone coverage.
One thing that's difficult about playing zone coverage is that the cornerback has to read the upfield shoulder of the quarterback and then react. This can sometimes lead to issues on pump fakes and double moves, which is why it's important the cornerback is disciplined.
This isn't an issue for Haden here, however. When the quarterback drops back and raises his shoulder to throw the ball, Haden quickly recognizes it and plants his right foot in the ground to attack downhill.
As Caldwell runs his route, Haden opens his hips up after planting his right foot to acquire proper leverage in order to break up the pass.
Subsequently, although he's a bit high in his pad level, he plants his left and looks to attack the ball now that he has the proper leverage and angle to do so. The ability to plant and drive on the ball is one of the most important aspects of playing cornerback. The league's best have the ability to do this.
In this next image, Haden displays his ball skills by successfully breaking up the pass by reaching his left arm around Simpson and deflecting the ball. Along with the ability to plant and drive on the ball, a cornerback must have exceptional ball skills in order to get his hands on passes.
It's also important to note that he was able to break the pass up without pulling Simpson back with his right arm, which cornerbacks tend to do and sometimes are penalized for.
Haden has quickly ascended up the rankings of the league's top cornerbacks because of this play. When his natural ball skills, quickness and instincts are combined with good technique, he is one of the league's best cornerbacks.
Unfortunately, he hasn't been recognized as such by most. The exception is Pro Football Focus, who ranked him as one of the better cornerbacks and added him to their "All-AFC North Team," but also stated he isn't one of the league's best just yet:
Haden led the league with 17 PDs, even if he went the entire year without picking one off. The young corner has a massive amount of potential and though he was beaten occasionally this season, could easily become one of the league’s best shortly.
The perception of the Cleveland Browns star cornerback will change with a strong 2012 season.