It’s hard to find a quantifiable measure by which we can determine the value of a defensive back. There are too many variables. Ike Taylor was a valuable cornerback for the Steelers for years, despite a well-documented inability to consistently hold on to even easy interceptions. Cortez Allen, meanwhile, had an early knack for finding interceptions, but gave up big play after big play as his career advanced.
Even the best attempts to grade defensive backs objectively can be questionable. And this is where we pick up the intriguing case of the Steelers’ Joe Haden, who is projected to cost the Steelers $10 million in salary and roster bonuses in 2018. Along with his prorated signing bonus, his salary-cap hit this season will be a whopping $11.9 million.
According to Pro Football Focus, a group that grades every player, Haden was the 68th-most productive cornerback in the NFL in 2017, which proves that cornerbacks are tough to grade. The PFF numbers say he was pretty doggone awful, considering that, in a base alignment, there are 64 “starting” corners in the league. That means Haden, who’s viewed as a co-No. 1 with fellow corner Artie Burns, was worse than every other starter in the NFL, plus a handful of backups.
The eye test says he was probably better than that — maybe somewhere in the mid-40s. That’s still not great and, either way, his value is nowhere near in line with his cost.
Rumor has it the Steelers want to keep Haden, but not at his current cap number. That makes sense, as he certainly isn’t living up to his paycheck. In 2017, Haden signed a three-year, $27 million contract, which gives him an average annual value of $9 million. Among cornerbacks, that’s 16th in the NFL right now. Using his actual 2018 cap-hit knocks him all the way up to 10th.
The question is: how much is he actually worth at this point?
Based on PFF’s grade and current average contract values for cornerbacks, his average contract value would fall just behind Quentin Rollins’ $935,642. That would be right in line with the 2018 veteran minimum with seven to nine accrued seasons (Haden has eight) of $930,000.
There’s absolutely no way that happens.
Haden wasn’t spectacular, nor was he absolutely terrible. As in most situations where value is subjective, the reality likely doesn’t live at the extremes. He’s not a shutdown corner, but he wasn’t the 68th-best in the league either.
A safe number to consider would likely be around the bottom of “starter-range” contracts. Based on average value, we could say a safe number would be equivalent to about the 28th-highest contract. That would be an average value of between $4 million and $5 million. For a longtime veteran being asked to take a pay cut, let’s assume he’s not likely to be terribly willing to take the low end of that range, leaving us at a $5 million target. But how do you convince a guy to take a pay cut of around $6 million per year? It likely starts with a modest contract extension.
With eight seasons under his belt, Haden likely doesn’t have a long contract left in him. It’s also pretty likely the Steelers wouldn’t want to sign him for the long term anyway, with a stable full of young corners like Burns, Mike Hilton, Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen. So, let’s shoot for what ultimately amounts to a one-year extension as an olive branch. In reality, the entire contract has to be scrapped because it is changing the financial value that had been agreed upon, so while it looks like an extension, it’s literally a brand-new contract. Still, that’s still a pretty small bone for a hungry dog.
The Steelers have a few options to make the deal more enticing to Haden. The big problem is the best option would be one they simply don’t use: guarantees beyond the first season. However, as more teams use this measure, the pressure is increasing for Pittsburgh to follow suit. This might be a great time to use it. For the sake of argument, let’s assume the team chooses to guarantee the entire contract.
Rough numbers for a contract averaging about $5 million per year over the next three years might look like the following:
Signing Bonus: $4,000,000
Base Salaries: $1,000,000 (2018), $2,750,000 (2019), $1,667,000 (2020)
Roster Bonuses: $1,000,000 (2019), $1,000,000 (2020)
Carryover Bonus*: $3,833,332
Note: The carryover bonus is the remaining signing bonus from his contract signed in 2017 that must still be accounted for. Because this is technically a new contract due to the actual dollar value changing rather than just restructuring, I believe that entire remaining amount comes due immediately and must be accounted for in 2018.
This ends up with cap-hits of roughly $6 million, $5 million and and $4 million. It builds in the possibility of more than $1 million in cap relief through a 2019 restructure, if necessary, by converting as much as about $2.75 million of the combined base salary and roster bonus into signing bonus, spreading that amount over the final two years.
The bottom line for Haden is this contract is worth $11.4 million in new money over the next three years. That’s a significant decrease over the $20 million he is currently due over the next two seasons on his current contract, even with an added year. The question he has to ask is this: is it worth giving up $10 million for each of the next two years based on the mere possibility that he could score better than $3.8 million in each of the next three years?
After Haden’s 2017 performance, it’s probably not all that likely, especially as several recent, strong cornerback draft classes continue to mature. It might be the best offer he will see.
It could even be the only offer, at least from a contender.