The Miami Dolphins are entering the 2021 NFL season with higher expectations than the franchise has endured in quite some time. The work of general manager Chris Grier and head coach Brian Flores has provided the Dolphins with a strong foundation of young players who, with development, could boost the team into the status of a legitimate contender. Flores’ Dolphins have exceeded expectations in two consecutive years, winning five of their final nine games in 2019 with what some considered to be the worst roster in recent memory before winning 10 games in 2020 and narrowly missing out on the postseason. Should the Dolphins exceed expectations for a third straight year, the Dolphins will certainly be in the postseason.
The recipe for success in 2021 will likely mirror that of the 2020 team: the Dolphins were smart, disciplined, opportunistic, and managed to secure just enough game-changing plays on defense to create control and leverage in games before playing situational football to close out wins. And while much of the focus on the Dolphins’ forecast for this upcoming season is situated around second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, there is another prominent storyline around the team’s 2020 most valuable player, cornerback Xavien Howard.
More specifically, Howard is reportedly seeking a new contract for his services after finishing the 2020 season with 10 interceptions, leading the league in both that category and passes defensed. Howard’s 2020 season was, statistically speaking, on par or better than New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore’s 2019 campaign that won Defensive Player of the Year. Howard was, undeniably, a stud. And given the Dolphins’ current pay distribution of the secondary, which features Byron Jones as the team’s highest-paid cornerback, Howard is well within his rights to assess his value and seek to change his situation as the second-highest-paid cornerback on his own team.
But this isn’t a straightforward decision on the Dolphins’ end of things. There are zero questions about Howard’s value as a player on the field, but the Dolphins have several variables to account for that would make tripling down on Howard a tough pill to swallow. For starters:
- Howard signed his most recent contract two years ago on a deal that made him, at the time, the highest-paid cornerback in all of football. The cornerback market has since reset and pushed Howard’s salary outside the top five.
- Howard’s durability has been an issue in the past. With several knee issues keeping him out of significant amounts of time since entering the league in 2016, Howard’s issues have all been rooted in his knees.
- Age is an issue to watch, too. Howard will be 28 years old at the start of the 2021 season and the age barrier of 30 years of age is a very real thing for the vast majority of NFL cornerbacks. Howard could go on to be the exception to the rule and continue playing at a high level beyond 30, but his knee issues make that feel like a long shot.
- The Dolphins drafted Noah Igbinoghene in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Igbinoghene got pushed into action early in 2020 with a groin injury to Jones, but has been brought along slowly after playing just two years of defense at Auburn. This was a developmental, long-term play that will need to pay off at some point.
- Miami’s salary cap distribution is grossly skewed to the secondary already. Between Howard, Jones, Igbinoghene, and the rest of the Dolphins’ cornerbacks, the team has more than $41.7M in spending at the cornerback position for 2021. That figure is No. 1 in the NFL by more than $6.5M compared to the next closest teams (New England and Baltimore). The 2022 figure is currently on the books for the third-highest mark with $38.1M; although that figure is without corners Justin Coleman, Jason McCourty, and Nik Needham accounted for.
With all of these variables in play and the Dolphins already having Howard on the roster and under contract through the end of the 2024 season, putting more finances into Howard’s commitments just 24 months after signing a five-year, $75M extension will be a tough pill to swallow. The Dolphins brilliantly structured that deal, pushing over $27M in guaranteed money at the time of signing into the first two years of the contract. The objective of this approach was presumably to offer the Dolphins enough flexibility to pivot if Howard’s knee injuries continued to progress.
And after 2019 knee issues cost Howard 11 games, the Dolphins got the best version of Howard in 2020 and Howard promptly responded by firing his agent while watching the cornerback market swell, leaving Howard’s new money for 2021 and beyond behind. Howard is now represented by David Canter.
Howard is currently missing in action from the Dolphins’ voluntary workouts in Davie, although a report from Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald indicates that his absence is not related to his desire for a new contract from the team. Flores, when asked about any player absences that may be related to new contracts, offered support for any players who elect to make the most of their offseason time away from the team, provided they’re doing the things they’re supposed to be in order to be ready for the season.
“I think after last year where there was no offseason, I think guys around the league and our team’s no different; they found a different way to train and they feel comfortable doing that. We have a few on our team and I respect that. I have no issue with that,” said Flores.
“I think my conversation with every player on this team is they’re doing what they need to do to be ready to contribute to this team and practice and play at a level that’s going to help us. I have no issue as long as they’re ready to go. I’m comfortable with that and I support it.”
And so, for now, there appears to be an amicable understanding from both sides of this relationship. But sooner or later, as is usually the case, this will come to a head for the Dolphins. There are three options:
- The Dolphins meet Howard’s request
- The Dolphins do not meet Howard’s request and Howard continues to play in Miami on his previously agreed upon deal
- The Dolphins do not meet Howard’s request and the corner voices his displeasure, resulting in a trade
The outcome that features no new contract and a continued level of amicable understanding feels like the most unlikely in the end. Howard’s “new money” for 2021, which totals $12.1M, is outside of the top 10 figures in new cash for this upcoming season. Some of the names with more money due this year? William Jackson, Adoree’ Jackson, Shaq Griffin, Jones, and Patrick Surtain II. Good cornerbacks for sure, but none that led the NFL in interceptions and passes defensed the previous year. That likely won’t sit well with Howard and his camp.
But yet, with all of the variables the Dolphins have to account for as arguments to not grant Howard’s desire for a new deal, the team would be wise to keep things status quo for as long as Howard is willing to stomach his financial dynamics, be that for two more months or two more years. But when Howard presses the issue, and he has every right to do so, the Dolphins would be wise to push back and resist the temptation to pay for the past instead of forecasting what Howard will be moving forward and hoping Howard will honor his contract.
With one exception.
If the Dolphins are intent on keeping Howard in the picture and Howard is intent on collecting more finances, there is a win-win outcome to be found:
Situational pay and conditional money. The Dolphins will need to craft a contract that offers Howard guaranteed money based on performance and, more importantly in Howard’s individual case, availability. A restructured contract or new extension would need to feature a juiced-up version of a series of stipulations that already exist within Howard’s current contract beginning in 2022: Per-game bonuses for being active on game day.
Howard’s current contract features a $29,411 per-game bonus for every game he dresses for beginning in 2022. This is where the common ground can be found between the parties to allow for Howard to recoup greater pay (provided his past knee issues don’t resurface) and the Dolphins can protect themselves to know that they’re getting production for a higher financial commitment to Howard moving forward as he nears that 30-year-old wall. But even with a greater focus on situational pay, Howard is $5M to $7M in per-year pay off the pace of where he’d ideally like to be based on his production: at the top of the food chain.
The Dolphins and Howard each have big decisions to make; probably sooner rather than later, too. But for now, the two sides will continue a cautious series of posturing before things reach a tipping point. There’s a way for each side to simultaneously leave this situation happy with the outcome, but that’s often a rarity in this business and, clearly, there are a lot of barriers and challenges to overcome to find it.