Xavien Howard's Record-Setting $77M Contract Resets NFL's Cornerback Market

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMay 11, 2019

FILE - In this Sept. 23, 2018, file photo, Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard (25) runs after intercepting the ball during the first half of an NFL football game against the Oakland Raiders, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Howard leads the NFL in interceptions, and his takeaway skills are a big reason the Miami Dolphins are in the playoff picture despite a soft defense and sputtering offense. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)
Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

A slew of talented cornerbacks are seeing dollar signs after Xavien Howard and the Miami Dolphins agreed to a five-year, $76.5 million contract extension Thursday, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter

The new deal resets the market with Howard as the highest-paid cornerback in NFL history.

"X wanted to stay in Miami," Howard's agent, Damarius Bilbo, told the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson. "He wanted to be part of that culture. He wanted to make Miami his home. ... They did what was right for the team in keeping a young productive player. They are trying to change the culture and keeping some young talent around."

The 25-year-old defensive back surpassed Josh Norman, who previously held the title at $15 million per year. In 2016, Norman's deal with the Washington Redskins set a mark most franchises didn't want to near even as the value of cornerbacks increased. Howard broke through after making his first Pro Bowl and earning second-team All-Pro honors. 

The contract represents a bigger shift within the NFL. As the reliance on spread principles and quick passing games continues to grow, the importance of coverage has never been greater.

The pass-rush-versus-coverage debate is already raging, with the New England Patriots' roster construction serving as a paradigm shift. Traditionally, the emphasis fell on creating pressure and disrupting opposing quarterbacks. Yet, the Patriots have moved on from multiple elite defensive linemen (Richard Seymour, Chandler Jones and Trey Flowers) during their two-decadelong dominance.

Instead, head coach Bill Belichick and Co. invested megabucks in cornerback Stephon Gilmore (and, for a shorter period, Darrelle Revis). The reason is simple: Coverage is more predictable over time, according to Pro Football Focus' Eric Eager and George Chahrouri. 

"During the PFF era, teams with elite coverage (67th percentile or better) and a poor pass rush (33rd percentile or worse) win, on average, about a game-and-a-half more than teams with the reverse construction," the duo wrote.

As pass-rushing mindsets change from player-dependent to scheme-dependent, more cornerbacks will benefit as their impact in the passing game becomes better emphasized. Four cornerbacks immediately come to mind: the Denver Broncos' Chris Harris Jr., Jacksonville Jaguars' Jalen Ramsey, Dallas Cowboys' Byron Jones and Cincinnati Bengals' William Jackson III.
  
Those string of corners will soon challenge to eclipse the contract's total value ($76.5 million) and yearly average ($15.3 million), though Howard's $46 million in practical guarantees ranks third behind Norman's $50 million and Patrick Peterson's $47.4 million.

All three of those numbers should fall within the next year or two with the ever-expanding salary cap. Howard is very good, but he's not great. According to PFF, the third-year cornerback ranked 20th overall last season in overall grade (77.3). His contract is a reflection of the league's changing landscape. 

This year marked the sixth consecutive season the league's salary cap rose by $10 million or more. Furthermore, organizations became adept at working the system, specifically utilizing rollover cap space. 

Currently, 22 franchises have $10.5 million or more in available salary-cap space, according to Spotrac. Teams can apply any sum not used this season to next year's cap, and 21 organizations already claim $20 million or more in space for 2020. 

Quarterback, offensive tackle, pass-rusher and, yes, cornerback often absorb the largest portion of a team's salary cap. Quarterbacks are already on another plane of existence from a financial perspective. Once QBs are taken out of the equation, 13 cornerbacks have contracts worth over $50 million—putting them in the top three alongside edge-rushers (18) and wide receivers (13).

NFL's highest-paid cornerbacks
RankPlayerYearsTotal WorthYearlyGuarantees
1.Xavien Howard5$76.5M$15.3M$46M
2.Josh Norman5$75M$15M$50M
3.Trumaine Johnson5$72.5M$14.5M$45M
4.Xavier Rhodes5$70.1M$14.02M$32.8M
5.Patrick Peterson5$70.05M$14.01m$47.4M
Source: Spotrac

Harris makes his way to the forefront because of his age—he turns 30 in Juneand current situation. Harris already requested a new deal or a trade, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. The four-time Pro Bowl selection "does not intend to budge" on his request, per ESPN's Josina Anderson

Pro Football Focus graded Harris as a top-four cornerback in four of the last five seasons. The veteran starts on the outside, but he's the best slot corner in the PFF era (since 2006). Harris can't expect a long-term deal, but he could eclipse $15.3 million per year in the short term. 

Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey
Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Jalen RamseyMark Brown/Getty Images

As the Broncos weigh what to do with their best defensive back, the Jaguars must find room to make Ramsey the league's highest-paid cornerback. Any other offer will be a slap in the face for the two-time Pro Bowl selection who won't turn 25 until the regular season. 

Two things need to happen before the sides can reach an agreement.

First, the Jaguars are projected to be nearly $30 million over the 2020 salary cap. Granted, Ramsey's $13.7 million fifth-year option is a significant portion of that. An extension won't help matters unless the team structures the early years in a way to massage some of the next two seasons' numbers. 

Second, the organization must figure out its relationship with the superstar. Ramsey is one of the league's best young defenders. Yet, executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin publicly called out players for not attending voluntary workouts. 

"To be clear, Jalen Ramsey is exactly where Jalen should be during his offseason," Ramsey's agent, David Mulugheta, responded on Twitter. "He's spending time with his young daughter and family while training in his hometown of Nashville. In addition, the Jags are fully aware of why he is not taking part in the voluntary offseason program." 

If the Jaguars aren't happy, Ramsey will find plenty of teams willing to make him the league's highest-paid cornerback when he hits the open market in 2021. 

Jones realized his potential last season under the supervision of defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator Kris Richard. The ultra-athletic defender finally found a home at cornerback and thrived. 

Dallas Cowboys cornerback Byron Jones
Dallas Cowboys cornerback Byron JonesMichael Ainsworth/Associated Press

According to the Dallas Morning News' Jon Machota, the Cowboys plan to keep the newly minted Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro for the long haul.

The 26-year-old Jones finished in the top eight among cornerbacks last season in overall grade (83.1) and yards per coverage snap (0.79), per PFF. He was also among the league's best at covering deep passes. Jones is entering the final year of his contract and will make $6.27 million this season. 

Unlike Jones, Jackson hasn't received the recognition he deserves. The 2016 first-round pick is a shutdown corner and played his best against the game's top competition. At 26 years old, Jackson still has two years remaining on his rookie contract, and he may have to wait for a significant deal since the Bengals organization isn't known for splurging. 

The Cleveland Browns' Denzel Ward and New Orleans Saints' Marshon Lattimore will eventually enter this conversation, but they have a little longer to wait before their contracts are renegotiated. 

An assembly line of highest-paid cornerbacks could develop, much like the quarterback position, where every signal-caller who's owed a new contract resets the market. 

Howard's deal serves as the starting point for cornerbacks to cash in and advance position value. 

                   

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.

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