The standoff between All-Pro cornerback Xavien Howard and the Miami Dolphins is close to a breaking point.
NFL Network's Michael Silver reported "a lot of trade chatter" surrounds the 28-year-old defensive back. The Dolphins prefer a first-round pick in return. Silver added several teams are "pondering such a move."
Issues stem from Howard's current compensation, which he feels doesn't accurately reflect his level of play after he led the NFL last season with 10 interceptions.
Howard owns the fourth-richest cornerback contract based on maximum earning potential ($75.25 million). But his compensation this fall ranks 12th at $12.1 million despite the fact that he signed the deal just two years ago.
Because of his dissatisfaction, the five-year veteran didn't attend the Dolphins' mandatory minicamp and became a holdout.
"It's pretty clear this is a contract situation, which we've talked about internally," head coach Brian Flores told reporters last month. "X is a little bit of a unique situation. He was extended and now we're talking about a potential renegotiation after one year. Those turn into longer conversations. We understand that. We've obviously had a lot of talks and conversations about that and we'll continue to have those and keep them internal, but it's a very unique conversation."
The situation is unique because the Dolphins extended Howard and then signed Byron Jones to a bigger free-agent contract less than a year later. This season, Jones will have a greater salary-cap hit ($16.1 million) and more cash earnings ($14 million) than Howard.
"Xavien Howard remains adamant about getting more money," the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson reported. "The fact others have received new deals has made him even more dug in. If he doesn't get a new deal with more money, this could stretch well into August."
Howard hasn't just been surpassed by his own teammate on the pay scale; the Los Angeles Rams' Jalen Ramsey and Baltimore Ravens' Marlon Humphrey leaped ahead as well. They're viewed as the NFL's top two corners, according to league insiders polled by ESPN's Jeremy Fowler. But Howard is right behind both and deserving of being recognized as such.
"Instincts. Plays a lot closer on you than most, and if people test him and force him, he knows how to get his head around and finish the catch," an NFC personnel evaluator told Fowler. "He breaks so well that he cuts the route."
Howard placed third in the rankings from more than 50 league executives, coaches, scouts and players. The perception around the league is exactly why suitors are seriously contemplating flipping a first-round draft pick (or equivalent) for his services.
The cornerback carries a $12.1 million base salary if traded, though the next franchise would have to negotiate a new deal with him. His actual salary-cap hit would depend on how the agreement is structured. Howard certainly seems open to the idea of playing for a new squad, with four leaping to the forefront as possibilities.
The Dolphins may have to get a little creative since they won't trade him in the division and likely won't garner much interest from teams with possible high first-round selections next spring.
New Orleans Saints
How the Saints are able to stay under the cap is fascinating, and it's why you shouldn't rule them out despite Howard's salary demands.
The team's vice president of football administration, Khai Harley, almost assuredly has a plan to take on Howard and rework his deal. Harley has seemingly worked miracles in the past. The Saints possess $11.4 million in available salary-cap space, so they wouldn't necessarily need a ton of cap gymnastics to pull this off. Harley explained his process to The Athletic's Katherine Terrell:
“You want to put your club in the best position possible, and you want to able to, when, the GM and the coach say, hey, we want to do XYZ, you want to figure out how to do it. It's not, 'no we can't' … you can have your opinion, but at the end of the day, it's going to be Mickey [Loomis] and Sean [Payton's] decision. So when they say, 'Hey, full steam ahead, let's do it', then it's like, 'OK let's figure out how to do it', and then I will explain, 'Here are the pros and cons of doing it this way vs. doing it another way.' But I think flexibility and being able to move when you want to move, being able to acquire guys when you want to acquire guys, I think that's at the forefront. And it's just a knowledge base of figuring out the 'how'."
The how will likely be based on reworking Howard's contract by converting his base salary into a new signing bonus and stretching it out over the course of the deal.
New Orleans' need for a cornerback upgrade is obvious, and that's the biggest reason it may be the only team willing to surrender a first-round pick for his services. Outside of Marshon Lattimore, who is a free agent after the upcoming season, the Saints are expected to rely on Patrick Robinson, P.J. Williams, Grant Haley, C.J. Gardner-Johnson and third-round rookie Paulson Adebo.
Drew Brees no longer leads the Saints, but the franchise won't call it a day simply because Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill will be behind center. New Orleans is the reigning NFC South champion. The Saints have a weakness at a premium position they can address. Find a way to make it happen, Harley.
Trade Package: Saints trade a 2022 first-round draft pick to the Dolphins for Howard.
The Eagles have the third-lowest amount of available salary-cap space of any squad. But they are a realistic landing spot because they have extra 2022 draft capital.
Along with three potential first-round picks, the Eagles have all of their original draft picks, plus an extra fifth from the Washington Football Team. Questions abound regarding how new head coach Nick Sirianni will perform, which might make their second-round pick more enticing to the Dolphins.
First, general manager Howie Roseman must make the financials work. Like the Saints, a restructured deal could provide some relief. However, the Eagles need more than a few million shifted around to complete this trade.
Philadelphia has a bona fide trade chip in tight end Zach Ertz, who is still considered a top-10 tight end despite last year's injury-plagued campaign.
"He's probably tired of the bullcrap in Philly," a veteran NFL offensive player told Fowler. "With a fresh start, he'll still be great."
Ertz's inclusion would save the Eagles $8.5 million. They'd still have to make corresponding cap-saving moves, but at least trading Ertz would help offset a large portion of Howard's contract.
Mike Gesicki continues to improve as the Dolphins' starting tight end. The position isn't an immediate need. But the possibility of adding a valuable draft asset and another weapon for quarterback Tua Tagovailoa shouldn't be dismissed.
Trade Package: The Eagles trade a 2022 second-round draft pick and tight end Zach Ertz to the Dolphins for Howard.
The Cardinals showed they're willing to bolster the roster by acquiring older veterans. J.J. Watt and A.J. Green are excellent additions on both sides of the ball, as long as they're healthy.
Arizona wants to position itself as a legitimate contender in the NFC West. The franchise has the talent at most spots to push its division rivals. However, cornerback remains somewhat of a mess.
Malcolm Butler was a solid free-agent signing, but he's 31 years old. Byron Murphy Jr. is at his best working over the slot. Robert Alford hasn't played in a game since the 2018 campaign due to injuries. Darqueze Dennard didn't play particularly well for the Atlanta Falcons last year as he dealt with a hamstring injury. Besides, he's better at covering inside receivers. Rookies Marco Wilson and Tay Gowan will be thrown into the mix as well.
Howard's inclusion would change the complexion of the Arizona defense.
The Cardinals are sitting in the same salary-cap range as the Saints. In this case, Arizona could include Jordan Hicks as part of the package since the team already allowed the linebacker's representation to seek a trade, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. First-round selections Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins will be the Cardinals' off-ball linebackers moving forward, even though Hicks tied for the team lead with 118 total tackles last season.
In fact, Hicks has amassed 359 stops over the last three seasons.
Benardrick McKinney's acquisition from the Houston Texans made linebacker less of a problem area in Miami. But the veteran's salary-cap hit escalates to $9.5 million next season with no guaranteed money left on the contract. The Dolphins could create excellent depth while simultaneously preparing for future attrition along their second line of defense.
Trade Package: The Cardinals trade 2022 second- and fifth-round draft picks and linebacker Jordan Hicks to the Dolphins for Howard.
The Dolphins probably prefer to keep Howard out of the AFC as they attempt to make the playoffs for the first time under Flores' direction.
As such, the Browns aren't the optimal trade partner. However, Cleveland presents a unique opportunity based on what it did this offseason.
The Browns spent much of last season in Cover 4 because they didn't have the defensive backs capable of playing more aggressive schemes. Injuries and a lack of depth played significant roles in their bend-and-eventually-break pass defense.
"Last year, there was a whole lot of things you can say, but we have the mindset of no excuses and no explanations," defensive coordinator Joe Woods told reporters. "... Just based on practice time and players available, there were certain things that we were not able to get to, but now moving forward, we have already started the process in the offseason of installing some new defensive packages and some new cover schemes, just so we can dictate the tempo a little bit more."
With the additions of safety John Johnson III, nickel corner Troy Hill and first-round rookie Greg Newsome II—along with Grant Delpit's and Greedy Williams' returns from season-long injuries—the Browns secondary went from porous to fortified. Thanks to improved depth, a deal could be struck.
As much as the Browns added, the cornerback spot opposite Denzel Ward isn't settled. Yes, Newsome should eventually take over the role, but he doesn't need to be rushed. Williams, meanwhile, is coming back from nerve damage in his right shoulder. Howard would immediately step into the starting lineup as Ward's bookend and give the Browns the league's best pair of man-cover corners.
Williams could entice the Dolphins. Injury aside, the 2019 second-round draft pick is only 23. He presents starting potential to replace Howard.
Plus, the Browns own the league's fourth-most salary-cap space at $20.6 million. Granted the team must decide on contract extensions for Ward, quarterback Baker Mayfield, running back Nick Chubb, guard Wyatt Teller and safety Ronnie Harrison Jr. Howard plays a premium position in a pass-first league, though. His value is greater than that of Teller, Harrison and possibly even Chubb depending on how the Browns internally view the running back position.
A quartet of Howard, Ward, Hill and Newsome would elevate the Browns defense beyond anything general manager Andrew Berry could have envisioned.
Trade Package: The Browns trade 2022 second- and fourth-round draft picks and cornerback Greedy Williams to the Dolphins for Howard.