As Dolphins minicamp opens, all eyes on Xavien Howard, who's rich AND underpaid

Hal Habib
Palm Beach Post

Strange time for the Dolphins, this. Tuesday morning marks the first time the 2021 Dolphins will all be on the field — or at least are all supposed to be on the field — but all the focus will be on one man who might not even be there.

This week’s minicamp is the first mandatory obligation of the offseason for Dolphins veterans, so maybe cornerback Xavien Howard will be in Davie.

And maybe he won’t.

Howard wants a new contract. He wants to tear up the one he signed just two years ago, the one that was to make him the richest cornerback in NFL history.

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Cornerback Xavien Howard intercepts a pass intended for Jets receiver Jeff Smith.

No need to pause to let that sink in. When it comes to renegotiations, fans don’t want to hear it. I’d bet that if you dig deep enough into the cliché “you’re dead to me,” you’ll find it’s rooted in a fan irate that his favorite player was holding out.

Players never win in such situations. It’s not easy making a case that a guy with a five-year, $76 million contract has, well, a case, but this may be the exception, based on three considerations: production, the team’s direction and the marketplace.

Howard plants a capital ‘X’ in each of these boxes.

Production? Ten interceptions in 2020. Team MVP. All-Pro. C’mon. You don’t need any more stats. You don’t need a long list of accolades. You just need eyes.

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Where does Howard fit in the direction the Dolphins are headed? This goes deeper than the 10 wins the Dolphins recorded last year. It’s just as much a question of philosophy. There was a time when the Dolphins didn’t appear to have much interest in keeping many of their biggest hits in the draft. They let Lamar Miller, Olivier Vernon and Jarvis Landry walk. Those days are over, thankfully. Jerome Baker just got a second contract. Before him, Jason Sanders, DeVante Parker and ex-free agent Zach Sieler received extensions. This is how good organizations do business. Not only does this reward those who produce, it dangles a carrot in front of others. Xavien Howard was the recipient when he re-upped through 2024.

Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard takes the field before a 2018 home game against the Raiders in Miami Gardens.

Except Howard hardly sounded like a man who just learned he was set for life.

“My agent took care of business and I’m here today,” he said at the time. “I’m just here to get better. That’s it.”

Outside of calling it “a blessing,” Howard fended off every attempt by reporters to show he had 76 million reasons to be joyful.

“That’s the type of guy I am,” he said. “You don’t see me out here just bragging about doing anything.”

Know what’s wrong with that? Nothing.

No Brink's truck for Howard

Contrast that with fellow cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who while forcing his way out of Jacksonville popped up one day in an armored truck (get the subtlety?). Now a member of the Los Angeles Rams, Ramsey is operating with a contract that averages $20 million per year, tops for any cornerback in the NFL — which is where things really get interesting.

Howard’s average is $15.05 million per year. Among corners, he’s not No. 2 to Ramsey, according to overthecap.com. He also ranks below Baltimore’s Marlon Humphrey ($19.5M), Buffalo’s Tre’Davious White ($17.25M), Philadelphia’s Darius Slay ($16.68) and Miami’s Byron Jones ($16.5M).

How many of them would you take ahead of Howard?

Me, zero.

The NFL, in a way, agrees. According to the league’s Next Gen Stats, Howard ranked as the league’s best coverage player in 2020. Quarterbacks testing him ended up with a 46.5 passer rating, which would make Jay Cutler blush.

“It should come as no surprise that the league leader in interceptions (10) landed atop this list,” Nick Shook wrote in support of the Next Gen findings. “Howard was effective in all areas and might have received a boost from Miami's decision to move him off the line of scrimmage last season. After spending nearly 70 percent of his coverage snaps in press coverage in 2019, Howard pressed opposing receivers just 32.2 percent of the time in 2020, and it produced excellent results.”

That’s not all.

“Some teams opted to challenge Howard deep and learned that was also a bad decision,” Shook wrote. “He recorded four interceptions on deep targets, the most in the NFL in 2020. … Howard hasn't allowed a deep passing touchdown as the nearest defender since 2017, intercepting seven passes on deep targets and allowing a grand total of just four receptions for 186 yards on 35 deep targets since the start of the 2018 season.”

Ramsey was the other cornerback on the All-Pro team last year. No one would argue he wasn’t worthy, but you know where Ramsey ranked on the top 10 coverage list? He didn’t. Neither did Humphrey, White, Slay or Jones. In fact, Howard was the only cornerback or safety among the top earners whose performance was commensurate with his salary, according to Next Gen. Howard also was the only one of the bunch to have more than four interceptions last season.

Ramsey has 11 total interceptions in his five-year career, or one more than Howard had last season alone.

Would Dolphins get equal value in a trade?

This doesn’t mean the Dolphins have to give Howard a new contract, or even have to sit down at the bargaining table. They could take the Jaguars’ route and, if Howard presses the issue, trade him, in which case there would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 31 teams looking Miami’s way.

Ramsey netted Jacksonville first-round picks in 2020 and 2021 and a fourth-rounder. Was it worth it? The picks produced, in order, defensive end K’Lavon Chaisson, running back Travis Etienne and defensive end Jordan Smith.

Again, I’d rather have Howard. Not to mention, if the Dolphins were to trade Howard (and not receive a starting-caliber corner as part of the deal), the player starting opposite Jones would be … who? Noah Igbinoghene? It’s logical to expect Igbinoghene to make a jump after getting thrown in the fire as a rookie last year, but this much of a jump?

By now, two things ought to be clear and simultaneously true: Howard is a rich man. And Howard is underpaid.

Oddly enough, he’s not the most-underpaid corner in the league, or even in the division. That would be former defensive player of the year Stephon Gilmore, whose average salary of $13 million ranks 13th among corners. And you know what happened Monday when the New England Patriots opened minicamp?

Gilmore didn’t show up.