Dolphins send message with Xavien Howard deal: Ball out, get paid

DAVIE, Fla. — Tanking speculation buzzed around the Miami Dolphins this offseason, but on the ninth day of May, general manager Chris Grier sent an emphatic message about the direction of his team: The Dolphins are signing cornerback Xavien Howard to a five-year, $76.5 million extension, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

Word is already spreading through Miami’s locker room that the new-era Dolphins’ way is to take care of their own. In other words: Ball out, handle your job the right way and you will get paid. The Dolphins are building toward something, and signing the team’s best player and defensive cornerstone to a record-setting, long-term deal is a strong step for the franchise.

It’s not clear whether the Dolphins’ rebuild will work, but securing Howard, 25, is a great move. Yes, it is a great move because of the message it sends. Yes, it is a great move because of how Howard has produced over his three NFL seasons. But most importantly, it is a great move because of Howard’s potential.

Howard’s seven interceptions in 12 games last season tied for most in the NFL and most by a Dolphins player since Patrick Surtain in 2003. He has 11 interceptions over his past 17 games. He’s not just a ball hawk, either. He has developed into a black hole for most receivers, and he dominates in man coverage.

One of his coaches, Tony Oden, believes Howard has just scratched the ceiling of his potential. Howard entered stardom in 2018, but the thought of him at the next level should have Dolphins fans salivating. Howard is on the brink of being the undisputed best cornerback in the NFL, earning Revis Island-type respect.

A higher salary, of course, creates higher expectations. Consistency in production, leadership and health will be expected of Howard going forward.

Miami traded up in the second round of the 2016 draft to select Howard No. 38 overall with thoughts of him being a key piece of its defense for a long time. He overachieved. And now Miami needs a few more Howards to get this franchise back to glory.

NFL teams tend to assume the personality, work ethic and mentality of their highest-paid players. You would be hard-pressed to find a man in Miami’s locker room who would question making Howard the team’s highest-paid player. He is the perfect player for the Dolphins to build around because he defines everything that first-year coach Brian Flores and Grier want in their players. He’s a hard-working, humble, reserved, playmaking star who has overcome a heavy load of adversity to reach this moment.

To fully understand the adversity element, you must get to know Howard and his story.

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Howard witnessed a murder — 10 yards away from him — while playing basketball outside his house in middle school. His sister is serving a 35-year prison term for felony murder. He grew up in one of Houston’s most dangerous areas, Fifth Ward, yet he made it out and continues to be an inspiration for his community.

So, yeah, the Dolphins picked a good one to be the cornerstone of their rebuild; that is, until they land their franchise quarterback.

This contract extension with Howard wasn’t always a foregone conclusion. The Dolphins in 2018 had to trade their best offensive player — wide receiver Jarvis Landry — after the two sides couldn’t agree on a long-term deal.

A source told ESPN that Howard showed a rare patience in dealing with his contract negotiations that most players don’t show entering their first big deal. He was willing to quietly enter free agency next offseason if Miami didn’t meet his numbers. He wasn’t interested in holding out of voluntary workouts, and he didn’t make a fuss.

Other NFL cornerbacks will thank Howard for this deal. It’s a move that will reset the market for every proven top cornerback who is due a new contract soon, including Chris Harris Jr., Jalen Ramsey and Xavier Rhodes.

Howard’s deal could serve as an example that the Dolphins’ new plan might work.