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Browns DB Haden shining

Joe Haden burst through the door of the Browns equipment room looking as if he had just done some holiday shopping.

Balancing a haul of hand warmers, foot warmers and synthetic undershirts in his arms, Haden zigzagged to his locker and piled the swag on a chair. With several inches of fresh snow blanketing the practice fields and temperatures stuck in the 20s, the rookie cornerback from Florida wanted to stay warm.

"I told them, 'Give me all the long sleeve stuff you got,'" Haden said.

He can't afford to cool off. Not now. Not while he's on this hot streak.

With four interceptions in his last four games, Haden's been a game-swinging playmaker for the Browns (5-7), who travel to Buffalo (2-10) on Sunday looking for their third straight win. Last week, the Miami Dolphins learned the hard way that picking on Haden isn't wise.

They threw long and short passes at him. They ran right at him and tried to run around him. They did everything possible to rattle Haden. He fought it all off.

Haden, who recently cracked Cleveland's starting lineup, recorded one interception, broke up four passes and made five tackles in Cleveland's 13-10 win. He's the first Brown to pick off a pass in four straight games since Ernie Kellerman in 1968.

The No. 23 has been unpopular around here since LeBron James left. But Haden is bringing it back.

The Browns had high expectations when they selected Haden with the No. 7 overall pick in this year's draft. He's gone way beyond them. A rookie of the year contender, Haden could also land on the AFC's Pro Bowl team.

"If he doesn't make it this year, it will definitely be next year," Browns linebacker David Bowens said. "Joe's serious. Coaches are continually getting on him for his technique and he continuously improves it. He's going to be a heck of a player."

He may be one already. After playing mostly in nickel and dime packages, Haden made his second consecutive start last week. One week earlier, he started against Carolina only because Eric Wright was out with a knee injury. Wright was healthy enough to play in Miami, but he couldn't take his job back from Haden. It may stay that way.

Coach Eric Mangini said Haden earned his way up the depth chart. It's not that the Browns didn't believe he could be a starter, but Haden had to shown he was ready with consistency.

"It's really just a function of working and when you get your chance," Mangini said, "going in and making a strong case for it and 'You can't take me out now.'"

Playmaking is in Haden's DNA. A star high school quarterback from Maryland who threw 80 career touchdown passes, he switched to wide receiver at Florida because Tim Tebow was in front of him. Wideout wasn't his spot in Gainesville, Fla., either as the Gators had Percy Harvin.

So, Haden moved to the defensive secondary. He hasn't budged since.

"Once I got a really good grasp of what was going on and understanding the NFL game, I knew I would be able to adjust to it and be an impact player," he said. "Honestly, I feel really comfortable out there. The game is finally starting to slow down for me. I'm just having fun playing and feeling real comfortable and loose. I'm having a good time."

Beyond a nose for the ball and ability to cover receivers, the Browns have been impressed with Haden's solid tackling. Unlike defensive backs who try to bring ballcarriers down with a big hit, Haden gets low and wraps his arms around a runner's legs like a boa constrictor. He's tougher than he looks, and Haden doesn't flinch when shoulder pads are popping.

"Some people don't like when it gets noisy," Mangini said. "Joe doesn't mind it. He actually enjoys that part of it. Cover corner is often a euphemism for 'won't tackle,' but he will."

Haden credits his fearlessness with playing linebacker in youth leagues and rough games of tackle — in the backyard and street — with four younger brothers.

"I'm not afraid to throw my head in there," he said. "You have to have that mentality, stay focused and make sure you wrap up. Don't be afraid."

Haden doesn't seem scared of anything, even making a mistake.

On Sunday, he bit on an outside move by Dolphins wide receiver Brian Hartline, who had Haden beaten badly down the sideline. However, quarterback Chad Henne's throw was short, giving Haden enough time to recover and make his fifth pick.

Haden, smiling, admitted he was a little lucky: "It's just that 40 speed that kicked in and I had to go get him."

The pre-draft knock on Haden was that he wasn't fast enough after clocked a slow 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. He can joke about it now, as no one is doubting his speed ... or anything else, for that matter.

Bowens thinks so highly of his young teammate that he compared him to former Jets teammate, Darrelle Revis, the standard by which all NFL corners are measured. As good as Revis?

"He's not far off," Bowens said. "He's aggressive like Revis. He understands the concept coverage on each play. Guys don't beat him, and if they do, he catches them. His talent is crazy. His range is off the charts. I think his range is better than Revis already.

"For Joe, the sky's the limit."