What to do with Xavien Howard

On June 15th, all Miami Dolphins players and coaches reported to mandatory minicamp; well, all players with the exception of All-Pro CB and 2020 INT leader Xavien Howard. It became clear early on in the day that he wouldn’t be showing up due to what Coach Brian Flores called “a contract situation.”

Howard was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2016 NFL draft by Miami, but his rookie year was plagued by injuries. He won the battle for the second starting position opposite veteran Byron Maxwell, but missed weeks 5-14 after reaggravating the knee injury he had in training camp. In 7 games, he ended with 40 tackles, 6 PBU’s, and a forced fumble.

The Dolphins knew they had a potential star in him after that season, although he needed to improve.

In his second season, he started to gain some notoriety when he took over as the starting cornerback. In Week 13, he picked off Trevor Siemian twice, with one being a Pick 6.

Week 14 was his coming out party as he picked off Tom Brady twice on National TV. He won AFC Defensive Player of the Week. After having 7 interceptions in 12 games in 2018, Miami decided to pay their star CB.

 In May of 2019, he signed a 5 year, $75.25 million contract with $39 million total guaranteed. He only played 5 games that season before Miami placed him on the PUP list with another knee issue. After returning to full health in 2020, Howard exploded with 51 tackles, 20 PBU’s, and a league leading 10 interceptions.

So the question is: Why ask for an extension now?

It’s rare to see a player holdout for a new contract or renegotiated deal just 2 years after signing a deal this long; however, in Xavien Howard’s case it is understandable, yet unprecedented.

When Xavien Howard signed his 5 year deal in 2019, the deal made him the highest paid DB in football at the time. Just 2 seasons later, he’s just the 6th highest paid at his position. Considering he’s widely regarded as top-3 at his position and lead all DB’s in interceptions (10) and passes defended (20), it isn’t shocking he would ask for a new contract.

Considering his first 2 years on the contract was frontloaded with guaranteed money with the last three years being chump change.

Howard may also just want to be the highest paid corner on the team, ahead of his fellow starting cornerback Byron Jones.

Jones had a PFF grade of 63.7, whereas Xavien Howard earned a grade of 87.3 . Howard currently makes about $1.5million less than Jones per year despite leading Jones in FF’s, PBU’s, INT’s, tackles, and catch%. Howard was also selected as first team All-Pro.

The third issue is guaranteed money. With 4 years remaining on his new contract, Howard only has $12 million left in guarantees. With Howard having a history of knee issues, it isn’t surprising he’d try to collect more guaranteed money.

Three Ways about it

Assuming the contract holdout is being caused by one of those three reasons, there are really only three things the Dolphins can do. They can restructure his deal now and pay him more starting in 2021, they can agree to play out the 2021 season and reevaluate next offseason, or they can trade him.

Extend Howard in the offseason

If Miami does decide to pay Howard more this season, they could give him a raise and convert much of it into a signing bonus. This would decrease his base salary, and the cap hit could drop from $13.5 million to $13.2 million. This would likely end up being a win-win situation. By giving him a signing bonus, they could make Howard the higher paid player among him and Byron Jones, which would be unprecedented leading to other players asking for more. For Miami, it would slightly help the cap situation which may ultimately come in handy with players like Mike Gesicki and Emmanuel Ogbah in line for paydays.

Play and re-evaluate

Playing out the 2021 season and reevaluating next season is more team friendly. With the salary cap being $182.5 million in 2021 and set to increase to $208.2 million in 2022, Miami would have a lot more flexibility in paying Howard and keeping other players.

This also gives Miami a lot more time to weigh other options and figure out other player’s contracts before Howard. With Howard showing no signs of returning, playing out the 2021 season with no change isn’t seeming likely. The Dolphins are adamant on keeping Howard in Miami, and taking a risk of souring the relationship but not paying him this season would not make sense for the Dolphins.

Trade and collect assets.

No Dolphins fan wants to believe this is a possibility. Luckily for those fans, it’s the least likely option as of now. In October, a team with interest in Howard called Miami, but those talks were shut down quickly.

According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, Miami would need a “Laremy Tunsil type of offer” to consider trading him. If the team were to consider a trade at this time, they have plenty of leverage and no reason not to get close to a Tunsil like offer.

Howard is coming off a career year and All-Pro selection, played his first full season, and they have him under contract for 4 more years. However, even if they can get an offer like that, Miami would rather not have to get to that point.

We’re going to have to wait and find out what happens over the course of the next few months, but at this moment, a trade seems the least likely.

Most likely Miami could find a way to up Howard’s money for 2021 while simultaneously creating more space for the future, likely via signing bonus. Keeping the team’s best player happy until 2022 when the cap significantly increases and they can renegotiate then seems like Miami’s best option at this point. 

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Who’s on the way out?

It’s the middle of June, which means it’s time to start looking at potential cuts for cap space purposes.

Things we should know: According to Jason Sarney of PhinManiacs, 22.58% of Miami’s money is allocated to the WR room and 26.49% is allocated to the DB’s. Surely we can expect that to change. The best way to reduce those numbers is to start in the WR room.

Jakeem Grant, WR

Grant brings on a cap hit of 4.6mil this season. If he is released now, Miami would save 4.08mil this season and take on just $600k in dead money. Sure, there are other WR’s Miami can cut before him, but when comparing his production to his pay, it’s not worth it. In 2020, Jakeem Grant only had a 66% catch percentage. He had plenty of costly drops throughout the season, but every Dolphins fan remembers this one from the game against Cincinnati.

Yes, that was bad. The only problem is, that isn’t a one time thing. This has been a problem for years, and it doesn’t seem to be improving.

Just last week, he dropped multiple passes from Tua during one practice session. He has shown immense talent as a PR/KR, but there are plenty of guys who can do that for the Dolphins. Maybe Miami can cut someone like Albert Wilson, but that would be solely for cap purposes. However, Wilson’s cap hit is just $500k more than Grant’s, which in Miami’s situation, is not enough to cut the better player.

Patrick Laird, RB

This isn’t really a wild prediction. He came in as an undrafted free-agent in 2019, and he likely made the roster because the team was being assembled to fail. Why he made the team doesn’t matter, because he did it again in 2020, and he showed some flashes of potential whenever he got on the field. In 2020, he had 13 carries for 72 yards, which is about 5.5 YPC. That’s a really good average, but that isn’t a large enough sample size at all.

With Myles Gaskin who carried most of the load last year, Salvon Ahmed who showed flashes of potential, the signing of Malcolm Brown, and drafting Gerrid Doaks from Cincinnati, Laird may be the odd man out. Cutting him would save the Dolphins $850k against the cap and take on just a $3k dead cap hit.

Patrick Laird is the Dolphins' only healthy tailback heading into Sunday's  game - South Florida Sun Sentinel - South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Clayton Fejedelem, S

Miami signed Fejedelem as a depth piece and special teams player last offseason, and as expected, that’s all he was. When it comes to pass defense, he isn’t much help at all, but he’s decent against the run. However, he didn’t get on the field much and only had 10 tackles all of last year. He’s due $2.53 million this season, which should be considered an overpay for what he does. Cutting him would save Miami all of that $2.53 million against the cap, and that could be used to sign someone later this summer.

Although his time in Miami may soon come to an end, all Dolphins fans are going to remember this fake punt versus Oakland for a long time.

Benito Jones, DL

Benito Jones spent most of his rookie year on the practice squad, but was active for 6 games. Through those 6 games, he played 48 snaps on defense and only managed to make one tackle. Although this isn’t a necessary cut, Miami can easily cut him and save $780k in cap space. He has potential, but the Fins have decent depth on the interior defensive line with John Jenkins, Adam Butler, Jonathan Ledbetter, and Jason Strowbridge. At worst he can be a Practice squad player.

Benito Jones Active Roster

Jesse Davis, OL

Jesse Davis is the least likely cut out of everyone mentioned in this article. Davis is versatile (he can play 4 of 5 positions on the OL) and experienced, spending the last 4 years in Miami. However, he will turn 30 in the beginning of the 2021 season. That makes him the 4th oldest player on the roster.

Davis adds depth, but with the signing of DJ Fluker and drafting of Liam Eichenberg, that need for depth slightly decreases. Davis spent the last four years on the Dolphins active roster, but has been average at best; In 2020, PFF rated him at 62.6, his highest grade ever. DJ Fluker is already 30, but he has been a really good linemen during his career, and PFF has rated him higher than Davis from 2017 through 2020.

Cutting Jesse Davis would save Miami $3.5 million against the cap, and bring a $1 million dead cap hit with the move. Although I wouldn’t expect this to happen, Miami could definitely do it to create some more cap space.

Dolphins place starting offensive lineman Jesse Davis on COVID-19 list -  South Florida Sun Sentinel - South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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Stop Worrying About Tua

Tua Tagovailoa took over the starting role after the Dolphins Week 7 bye, and helped lead the Dolphins to a 6-3 record. He threw for 1,814 YDs, 11 TDs, 5 INTs, and 64.1$ Completion Percentage. Are those crazy numbers that we should be in love with?

No, not by any stretch; however, in a season where he didn’t have a full off-season, Tua was coming off a potential career-ending injury, had a surrounding cast full of guys who could’ve been PS players on other teams, and an OC who called plays like Miami had a child under center, he played beyond adequately.

Just a week after his first start in which he didn’t need to do much because of a stellar defensive and special teams performance, he lost his WR2 Preston Williams to a season-ending foot injury. The supposed WR1, Devante Parker, missed 2 of 9 games when Tua was starting, and was barely healthy for the other 7. His best performance was when he went for 8 catches and 119 yards versus a Jets team assembled to fail. In weeks 15 and 16, his best WR’s were Mack Hollins and Isaiah Ford. Only 10% of Tua’s passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air were dropped.

According to PFF, the Dolphins WR core dropped 14 passes which would have equated to about 25.3 points. In week 17 vs Buffalo in a do-or-die game, there were at least 12 catchable balls dropped, plenty off the hands of Devante Parker.

The WR corps ranks last in the league in creating separation and yards after catch. One pass catcher who solidified himself as top-10 at his position was TE Mike Gesicki, but in today’s league, one good TE is not enough to entirely change an entire offense. Simply put, the WR room did not do enough, and was not built, to help a rookie quarterback coming off a major injury.

Miami Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa working out with the boys | CAPTION THIS!  - The Phinsider

Fortunately for Tua and the offense, they’ve added some serious help to the WR room. In free agency, they signed WR Will Fuller V. He brings serious speed and brilliant hands to the receiver room, and everyone knows the latter was necessary. Last season in just 11 games, he was able to put up 880 yards and 8 TD’s. If he can stay healthy for all 16 games (suspended week 1), he can do some serious damage and help make the WR corps really fun to watch.

A little over a month after that, the Dolphins drafted Jaylen Waddle with the 6th pick. Tua and Waddle had a remarkable connection during their time together in Alabama, and combining Waddle with Fuller and Parker should be lethal. Many are comparing Waddle to Tyreek Hill. Preston Williams is still a question mark, although he has shown serious potential over the last two years.

Miami also has Lynn Bowden Jr., Jakeem Grant, Malcom Perry, and Albert Wilson. I’d expect Grant to be cut by September, but the other 3 have the ability to provide crucial depth and speed for this group. If these guys can stay healthy, I’d expect Tua to have a field day throwing the ball to them.

In the RB room, the Dolphins had Matt Breida, Salvon Ahmed, Myles Gaskin, and Patrick Laird. Matt Breida didn’t do anything in a Dolphins uniform to live up to the hype. Patrick Laird was an undrafted free-agent who would get minimal playing time. Ahmed and Gaskin showed signs of potential often busting out for quick 10-15 yard carries and nifty moves, but neither had the experience or true bell cow ability you’d like to give your new franchise QB. To the dismay of many fans, the Fins FO didn’t do much to add to the RB room.

In FA, they signed Malcolm Brown, a 7th year man who spent his first 6 years as a Ram. He’s shown he can play, but was never given a chance to be the true number one guy, but I wouldn’t expect him to be first in line here either. In the 7th-round of the draft, Grier & co. drafted Gerrid Doaks, a power back from Cincinnati. According to many people who followed his career, he’s a heavy power back who runs hard. Adding depth and experience to the RB room should help all of them feed off each other and improve. A better RB group will ultimately help Tua become a better passer.

When OC Chan Gailey was questioned on why the playbook was a lot more diverse with Ryan Fitzpatrick at QB, he cited the situations in which Fitzpatrick was brought in. Although that is true to an extent (when he came in, Miami was forced to move the ball down field to have a chance), there was a clear difference in play calling for Tua and Fitzpatrick.

In the week 16 game in Las Vegas, all 22 of Tua’s passes were considered “short throws.” A lot of times a QB isn’t seeing the field and is checking it down quickly, but when every throw in one game is short, you start to question beyond the QB’s ability. Yes, Tua recently said his grasp of the playbook wasn’t as perfect as you’d want it to be, but he also won 6 games with that knowledge, and mentioned the playbook was a little simple when he was in. If that last part was a simple fact, or a shot at Gailey, we may never know. However, Gailey “retired” and co-offensive coordinators George Godsey and Eric Studesville have designed an offense around the strengths of Tua. Having a year of experience and a playbook that is fit for him will significantly help.

There was also the notion that Tua couldn’t throw the deep ball, obviously anyone who knows football knows that isn’t true. He threw a plethora of beautiful deep balls, plenty of which were dropped as mentioned above. On his deep balls last season, he had 260 yards and 2 touchdowns, which was better than Burrow, Darnold, Garropollo, and Goff. He has plenty of ability to throw deep balls and move the offense down field, people just need to open their eyes and watch.

Does a new WR room, help at RB, and better OC’s mean he’s going to be a baller right away? No, but we can sure hope so. According to many in attendance at practice, Tua clearly “has more zip on the ball.” When you combine those improvements with huge strides in the weight room, extra time with his WR’s, and a full year of being healthy, it’s not bold to expect a big leap from Tua Tagovailoa.

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