EASTLAKE — Steelers cornerback Joe Haden looks behind him down the turnpike and sees the team he always envisioned when he played in Cleveland.
“The talent on the Browns team, you can’t deny it,” Haden, a two-time Pro Bowler, said Saturday night before Browns receiver Jarvis Landry’s celebrity softball game at Classic Park. “Everybody understands how good they can be. On paper it looks amazing.
“So that’s the thing, just making sure that they stay together and work together as a team.”
In seven seasons with the Browns, Haden’s eternal optimism took repeated blows as the team went 29-83. He was cut before the 2017 season and landed in Pittsburgh, where he went to the playoffs for the first time in his first year.
The Steelers have been the class of the AFC North for years, but the Browns have been installed as the betting favorite for 2019 following a surprising 7-8-1 season, the emergence of quarterback Baker Mayfield and the offseason acquisition of receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and defensive linemen Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson.
“But sh– happens, so I’m not in any way upset,” Haden said of the turnaround in Cleveland after he left. “But I’m like, damn, if I was there, that sure would’ve been sweet.”
The playoff expectations for the Browns come on the heels of 1-15 and 0-16 seasons in 2016-17. But general manager John Dorsey quickly turned the roster from laughingstock to legitimate.
“You could put their talent against anybody’s talent in the division and that’s what makes it good,” Haden said.
People around the league have noticed.
“The Browns had the most exciting offseason out of any team,” former Chargers pass rusher Shawne Merriman said. “The talent that they brought in, they’ve shown that they want to go and attempt to get a ring right now, and good for them because it’s time.”
“It’s a big change,” Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard said. “Seeing them change the whole organization around, that’s great.”
Haden isn’t conceding anything. He loves the Steelers roster and said as long as they have quarterback Ben Roethlisberger they’ll have a chance.
But the progress in Cleveland makes him smile.
“I’m happy for them,” Haden said. “I’ve got a lot of friends still on the team for the Browns. At the same time, we’re working in Pittsburgh now, we’re excited about how the season looks.
“So just having two good teams, the division is going to be a lot more aggressive. So I’m excited for it.”
Mayfield is the primary reason the Browns have an opportunity to win their first AFC North title. He threw an NFL rookie-record 27 touchdown passes in 2018 after being the No. 1 pick.
“He can be a really good quarterback, man, just continuing to get more talent around him, offensive line holds up,” Haden said. “He doesn’t just look down his receivers. He scopes the field really well.”
Chiefs tight end and Cleveland Heights graduate Travis Kelce got an up-close look last season at how quarterback Patrick Mahomes blossomed into an MVP in his second year in the league, first as a starter. He sees some of the same qualities in Mayfield.
“They’re both loved football players, great personalities, guys that can relate to just about everybody,” Kelce said. “Baker has done an unbelievable job handling his situation knowing there have been some bumps in the road since he got drafted. Pat has taken the world by the hand and walked us through this roller coaster we’ve been on.”
Mahomes doesn’t have a receiver tandem like Mayfield does in Beckham and Landry.
“That pairing is going to be crazy, man,” said Howard, who played with Landry in Miami. “When I saw it happen, I was like, ‘Wow.’”
“The Cleveland fans and city, they’ve always deserved a great football team,” Haden said. “And I feel like the management with Dorsey, he’s done a great job of having the money, having the assets and going and getting it. Not being afraid to make moves, not being to make decisions.”
Landry was talking about going to the Super Bowl before last season despite the Browns coming off the second 0-16 season in NFL history, so he’s got no problem with expectations. He also understands talk in the spring and summer doesn’t count for anything.
“We’ve still got things to prove,” he said. “We’re still going to be facing challenges that we’re going to have to overcome. I guess in a sense it’s good to get that sense of acknowledgement, but for us, it really doesn’t mean anything unless we go out there and prove it and do it.”