For at least the fourth time this year, the best player on an NFL team is unhappy and either wants out or wants drastic change.
The first three were elite quarterbacks -- Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson -- all making 30-plus million dollars per year. The latest is Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard, who makes far less than that and hopes a new team can change the dynamic.
Howard's detailed statement on Instagram on Tuesday night highlighting his trade request and unhappiness with his five-year, $75 million deal that's short on guarantees sent shock waves through the NFL. But it was hardly a surprise, despite his on-time arrival at training camp this week. Howard's frustration has bubbled under the surface for months, and coming off a fantastic 10-interception 2020 season, he is flexing business muscle.
Could a trade happen? Where could Howard fit in a deal, and what would it take for a team to land him? Let's take a detailed look at Howard's situation in Miami, what he might bring on the trade market and, most importantly, five teams that could try to get the corner in a deal.
Why Howard wants out
The Dolphins' apparent refusal to get creative with his contract has led to broken trust with Howard. He and his new agent, David Canter, requested that Miami guarantee his 2021 salary or accelerate money from future years into this year, according to a source. They believe they provided dozens of scenarios that would have improved Howard's contract without compromising the team's financial outlook. The Dolphins currently have $8.6 million in cap space, and boosting Howard's pay wouldn't have occupied all of that, especially if they added voidable years to the back end.
The team made one last push before Howard's statement hit the internet around 8 p.m. Tuesday. By going public, he took control of the narrative and applied pressure on Miami, which has three options:
Wait this out, betting the player wouldn't turn down $12 million this year
See it his way and rework his deal
Trade him in the coming weeks
A source says it's too early to determine whether Howard would sit out practices or games in the future if nothing is resolved, but the cornerback is unhappy enough that the possibilities seem endless. Miami must decide whether it wants that headache, and if not, it might have a ticking clock on a trade, which could affect leverage.
The Dolphins seem receptive to at least continuing to talk with Howard. Coach Brian Flores told WQAM-AM Miami on Wednesday that "there's a way" to work things out with Howard: to "continue to have discussions with him, his representation, and keep the lines of communication open, continue having dialogue and, hopefully, work something out."
But Howard wants a bone that Miami hasn't been willing to throw. Even a sweetener of a few million dollars long ago might have satisfied the player.
"I've played on that deal for two seasons and didn't complain, but everyone knows I've significantly outperformed that deal," Howard said in his statement. "I'm one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, and the tape backs that up."
From Miami's perspective, reworking a player's deal with four years remaining sets a precedent few teams want. The Dolphins can point to the contract Howard signed in summer 2019 that, at the time, made him the highest-paid corner in the NFL.
Furthermore, the Dolphins feel as if they stood by Howard through injuries and legal issues. Howard has had multiple knee surgeries, the latest in December 2019. He was arrested in late 2019 after an alleged domestic violence incident with his fiancée, but the charges were dropped shortly thereafter. And his name appeared on a police report concerning the alleged shooting of the house of Damarius Bilbo, his former agent. The investigation was reportedly closed, and Howard's attorney said the player had no part in the incident.
Now, the Dolphins have built their defense, at least in part, around Howard's ability to disrupt opposing passing games. But he believes the Dolphins essentially pulled a fast one on him with a deal that was considered obsolete within a few months. At $12.1 million in non-guaranteed money for 2021, Howard ranks 12th in cornerback cash value this season, according to ESPN's Roster Management System.
Players notice how their teams spend cash, so it wasn't lost on Howard how Miami paid guard Ereck Flowers $6 million to essentially go away. (Washington is on the hook for $3 million of Flowers' $9 million salary as part of a trade; Miami absorbed the rest.) Or how recently extended linebacker Jerome Baker has a better guarantee structure than he does. Baker earned $20 million at signing and $28.4 million in guarantees on a three-year, $37.5 million extension, good for percentages of 53.3% and 75.7% of the total deal. Howard got $27.2 million at signing and $39.3 million in guarantees, good for 36.2% and 52.4%. Shorter-term deals with less money are easier to guarantee, but such disparities only fuel a player coming off a historic year feeling vastly underpaid.
And then there's the Byron Jones deal. Miami might not be in this situation with Howard if it hadn't signed Jones to a five-year, $82.5 million with $54.4 million in guarantees last offseason. Asking Howard to cover the top receiver every week while Jones makes more than he does just never sat well.
Howard's trade value
On the surface, Howard's value as a player is immense because he has what teams covet: the ability to play press-man coverage and get the ball.
His 22 interceptions since entering the league in 2016 ranks second behind Baltimore's Marcus Peters (23). Howard's 55 passes defended during that span embodies consistency. Per NFL Next Gen Stats data, only Cleveland's Denzel Ward (24.3%) posted a better ball hawk rate -- the percentage of targets in which the nearest defender made a play on the ball -- among defensive backs last season than Howard's 22.7% (minimum 50 targets as the nearest defender).