Kelly: Dolphins’ Xavien Howard is type of talent that elevates an NFL franchise

Kelly: Dolphins’ Xavien Howard is type of talent that elevates an NFL franchise

avien Howard wants you to test him.

Go ahead opposing quarterbacks, he dares you.

The Miami Dolphins cornerback wants the opportunity to continue building his reputation and enhancing his brand as a shutdown cornerback.

There’s already plenty of evidence that this third-year player has a bright future if he continues on this trajectory and stays healthy.

According to ProFootballFocus.com, an analytics-driven football website, since week 12 of last season Howard has allowed just 13 receptions on 43 targets and he has intercepted seven of those passes and hasn’t allowed a touchdown.

That is the type of contribution Darrelle Revis, a first Ballot Hall of Famer, was making in his prime.

“He balled out in camp and turned over and brought it to the game,” said Dolphins receiver DeVante Parker, whose productivity in practice fell off drastically because he consistently drew Howard’s coverage. “Iron sharpens iron.”

Parker said the hardest thing to deal with when playing Howard is the fact he consistently switches up how he plays a receiver, which makes him unpredictable.

“He’s one of the best cornerbacks in the league,” Bobby McCain said of Howard, whom he and his teammates call “X-Factor.”

Howard, who has contributed five tackles, four pass deflections and three interceptions in the season’s first three games, started building a case for himself during back-to-back wins against the Broncos and Patriots last season, when Howard pulled down four interceptions.

It was his two interceptions of Patriots quarterback Tom Bradythat boosted his confidence, helping him realize he had everything he needed to be elite. Howard and the Dolphins face the Patriots again on Sunday.

“We’re going up against the GOAT,” Howard said, classifying Brady as the greatest quarterback of all time. “If I can do this against him, I can do it against everybody. My confidence built up from there, and ever since then I’ve been playing at a high level.”

Howard said his focus this season isn’t on making his first Pro Bowl. It’s on helping the Dolphins win the franchise’s first playoff game since 2000.

He’s bought in on what the Dolphins are selling and hopes to make South Florida his permanent home.

Within the next year we’ll likely find out if the feeling is mutual, because players at his talent level typically get a new deals before they play out the final year of their rookie contract.

“This is a prototype player,” Dolphins General Manager Chris Grier said the day he selected the former Baylor standout in the second round of the 2016 draft. “It’s a core position — premium need for us. This guy checks all the boxes in terms of height, weight, speed, competitiveness, toughness.”

Grier was right, and Howard could go down in history as his best draft pick as Dolphins’ GM. The question that will linger for the next two seasons is whether Howard will be playing in his prime for Miami, or another team?

He is eligible for an extension after this season. Upper echelon cornerbacks are commanding salaries that are north of $12 million a season.This season, Howard is set to make $1,007,000, and next season it’s $1.28 million.

This offseason the Jets gave Trumaine Johnson a five-year, $72 million deal, which guaranteed him $34 million, and last year the Patriots, which are notoriously frugal, gave Stephone Gilmore a five-year, $65 million deal, which fully guaranteed him $31 million.

The three-year-old deal Washington gave Josh Norman, which paid him $75 million over five years, and guaranteed the Pro Bowl cornerback $36.5 million, continues to set the bar for that position.

The Dolphins have a respectable history of locking up their better players before they reach free agency. Miami did that with quarterback Ryan Tannehill, safety Reshad Jones and center Mike Pouncey in recent years.

But the franchise also let upper echelon talents like Jarvis Landry, Olivier Vernon and Charles Clay depart through free agency, and via a trade after being priced out the bidding.

Miami can avoid that nightmare by placing the franchise tag on Howard after the 2019 season, committing to pay him more than $15 million for the 2020 season. But who wants it come to that?

It is not enough to simply draft and develop elite players. The goal should be to keep them too, and we’ll soon learn if that’s achievable with Howard.

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