Throughout the 2018 season, Miami Dolphins defensive backs tried to tell anybody who would listen that Xavien Howard is among the NFL's best cornerbacks. His 2018 play, and knack for interceptions, backed up their strong talk. In his first Pro Bowl appearance, Howard nabbed an interception off Dak Prescott. The ball just finds the man they call "X."
One of the Dolphins' biggest decisions in the next year is what to do with their top cornerback. Howard has one more season left on his rookie deal. He's eligible for an extension this offseason, and he told reporters after the Dolphins' season-finale loss at Buffalo that he wants to be the NFL's highest-paid cornerback.
What is highest-paid-cornerback money? The leader is Washington's Josh Norman at $15 million per season after he signed a five-year, $75 million deal with $36.5 million guaranteed in 2016. The top five highest-paid cornerbacks all make at least $14 million per year.
That sort of money is often reserved for the top stars and contending teams looking for the final piece. So in the past month, there has been a lot of trade talk surrounding Howard.
“I seen that. No, the trade rumors do not bother me," Howard said at the Pro Bowl last week. "It is what it is. It’s a business. Be prepared for it. Wherever I go, it don’t matter; I’m still going to be busting my butt.”
Recent history shows Miami hasn't always had success locking up its stars. Jarvis Landry's contract negotiations got ugly last offseason, and eventually Miami's top receiver was traded to Cleveland after the two sides couldn't agree to a deal. Landry signed a five-year, $75 million contract with the Browns a month later. So now the dial turns to Howard, who shares an agent with Landry (Damarius Bilbo). Will Howard be a part of the Dolphins' rebuild?
Howard is one of 12 players listed on Dan Graziano's ESPN class of 2018 players who've graduated into stardom. Howard, the NFL's 2018 interception co-leader with seven, has arrived. He's a star coming off his first Pro Bowl season, and he wants to be paid accordingly -- ideally with Miami.
"Most definitely," Howard said, discussing whether he'd like to return to the Dolphins. "It's the team that drafted me, and I feel like I gave them my all there, man. I want to stay there. I want to be a franchise player there."
Many Dolphins fans hope he gets the chance to be their franchise player, a ball hawk worth building around for now and the future. He's 25 and his press-man coverage ability could take him to a higher level under new coach Brian Flores, who is expected to be hired next week after the Super Bowl.
Howard has 11 interceptions in his past 17 Dolphins games, and he's the team's best player. He was named an AFC Pro Bowl starter despite playing just 12 games because of a knee injury.
“He’s trending in the right direction. He still has a ways to go. He recognizes that,” Dolphins defensive backs coach Tony Oden told ESPN in November. “He doesn’t feel like he’s a complete player. There’s still a lot of meat on the bone in regards to his development.”
Howard said he hasn't had extension talks with the team, noting he doesn't think the Dolphins are "in a rush to do anything" and understanding this sort of commitment takes time.
All 32 teams should want a player like Howard: a young, ascending, lockdown cornerback with a knack for interceptions. So his trade value likely would be high, and getting a big return could be intriguing for a Dolphins team likely headed toward a rebuild.
Miami's new regime, headed by general manager Chris Grier and Flores, will have to decide whether Howard's value is larger as a highly paid franchise player, as he hopes, or as a highly sought-after trade chip to help Miami get its franchise quarterback.
Like many of the Dolphins players, Howard has paid attention to the coaching staff changes this offseason. Miami will have a new head coach, three new coordinators and primarily new faces throughout the coaching staff. Howard doesn't know Flores, the linebackers coach for the Patriots, but he wants to get to know him.
"He’s in the Super Bowl right now and trying to get things together there. Whenever it happens, I’ll be happy for it, and I’ll be willing to meet the guy and get to know him,” Howard said.
Howard knows Patriots defenses under Flores played a lot of man coverage, which excites him. He also hears the rebuilding talk, but he believes the Dolphins have enough good players to be competitive in the AFC East in 2019.
There are few things more important in building a team than a star No. 1 cornerback, and Howard hopes the Dolphins feel that way about him.
ESPN's Michael DiRocco contributed to this story.