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Free Agency

Justin Hardee Sr. is embracing opportunity to play for his hometown team in the Browns

Hardee signed a contract with the Browns on April 2

Hardee Signing Feature

Justin Hardee Sr. began his day on April 2 knowing that he would be signing a contract with an NFL team. Yet, this day had a different feel to it than his previous NFL stops, as he got into his car and drove a short distance to the Browns CrossCountry Mortgage Campus.

The hometown kid had earned his chance to play for his hometown team, as he officially signed a contract with the Browns on April 2.

"It was between a few teams, but ultimately it came down to what made sense for me and what was the best situation for me," Hardee said. "It was kind of a no brainer with the teams I had. I felt like this was the best situation for me where I'm at in my career. This is the perfect situation. So, I'm embracing it."

Hardee grew up in Cleveland and attended Glenville High School where he graduated from in 2012. He has been a Browns fan throughout his life, keeping his fandom as the Browns struggled through losing seasons and tough situations. He followed different players across position groups like WR Josh Cribbs and CB Joe Haden during their individual stints in Cleveland. Hardee also had an opportunity during his career to meet both and played against Haden.

Over the years, he held on to the dream of playing for his hometown team during his career. It just came earlier than he originally anticipated.

"I knew I was going to eventually play for the Browns," Hardee said. "I just didn't know when. I thought it would have been later in my career, but I felt like God's timing was perfect timing and he wanted it to come in the prime of my career. So, what's better than to be playing for your hometown team in your prime rather than when you're on the way out the league."

Hardee toured the facility on Tuesday and met with Executive Vice President of Football Operations and General Manager Andrew Berry, head coach Kevin Stefanski, special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone and other members of the Browns' coaching staff. Hardee had a mutual connection with Ventrone from Hardee's time with the Saints in former teammate Craig Robinson. They've also crossed paths along the way.

"I know Bubba has coached some pros in his past and Pro Bowlers in his past, isn't as fast and I looked them in about a day and I said, 'You're gonna add Justin Hardee to that list.' So excited man just to meet him, I love his energy," Hardee said. "Coach (Kevin) Stefanski, you hear about stuff, but you don't necessarily know the person until you actually meet the person. So just actually meeting these guys and actually putting the character to face and just seeing how they act, how they talk."

Hardee is now entering his eighth NFL season out of Illinois and has been a key piece in kick and punt return coverage over his career.

He was originally signed by Houston as an undrafted free agent in 2017 and has appeared in 100 career games with the Saints (2017-20) and Jets (2021-23). Hardee was also named to the Pro Bowl in 2022 in his second season with the Jets. He has recorded one career interception and 63 special teams' tackles. Last season, he appeared in 11 games and registered five special teams' tackles.

As Hardee takes the next step in his career, the success of the Browns during the 2023 season played an integral role in his decision. He believes he can play a part in the Browns taking another step in their playoff success, whether on the defensive side of the ball or on special teams.

"I feel like defensively, we can lead the league and take aways and lead us to the promised land and special teams, I feel like we can do the same thing. I can't wait to tap into more into special teams and meet the special teams' guys," Hardee said. "Being able to be here and being able to be a part of the championship instead of me just rooting for the championship, I can actually be a part of it. I can help bring whatever tool I can bring in to help the franchise in any way possible."

As Hardee transitions to a new team and learns the nuances of the Browns, he knows his connection to the city of Cleveland and understanding the fanbase of the Browns will allow him to flourish – especially with his family and friends present in the area.

"They are definitely going to see nothing but passion from me, and me giving everything that I have," Hardee said. "I pride myself in that, just taking everything and everything is earned, not given. So, just embracing that mentality and embracing that I get to be in my city to play for my hometown fans and that they'll be able to watch me play, my family will get to watch me play every single week. Now that we all together, I feel like it's gonna be special. I feel like this year will definitely be special. I feel like if I was to ever be on the Browns any year, I feel like this is the best year to be a part of it."

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