Dolphins D: Same faces, new vibe after Xavien Howard, Emmanuel Ogbah deals

MIAMI -- You assume every team in the NFL wants to win. Some do a better job of showing it than others.

The Miami Dolphins have spared no expense in building a contender this offseason. Their biggest additions have come on offense with the signing of left tackle Terron Armstead and a trade for receiver Tyreek Hill. However, they didn't forget their defense.

Their latest move was a five-year, re-worked contract with cornerback Xavien Howard that gives the three-time Pro Bowler $50 million in new money even though he had three years and $39 million remaining on a contract he signed in 2019.

Howard felt he outplayed his contract, especially after Miami gave cornerback Byron Jones a five-year, $82 million deal in 2020. Howard publicly requested a trade prior to the 2021 season, and the team put a bandage on the issue by slightly restructuring his contract and promising to renegotiate after the season.

By making good on their promise, the Dolphins seemed to send a message to their locker room that the days of squabbling with their best players are over.

"Just to bring everybody back, especially on defense, is so exciting," Howard said. "My boy [Emmanuel] Ogbah, I was happy he's back. We can make some plays out there together. It's exciting to have the defense back, especially going into our third year in the same defensive scheme."

Miami began the reunion tour with its defense by retaining coordinator Josh Boyer and several other members of last year's defensive staff, then re-signed Ogbah, their top defensive end, to a four-year, $65 million contract just minutes before legal tampering began on March 14. The sides had negotiated throughout the season but were unable to agree to a contract prior to the offseason.

Speaking at the NFL combine, however, Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel publicly made it known that he wanted Ogbah back. He got his wish 12 days later.

Since then, Miami has made it clear it feels its defense from last season was worth building on. It re-signed its entire inside linebacker room and defensive tackle John Jenkins. When the team began its offseason workout program April 4, players described a new atmosphere in the locker room despite many of the same faces.

"It's just different. You can tell," Ogbah said. "A lot of guys are happy to be back. Everybody is just happy to see each other again. It's only been like two months, but it felt like forever. We're just glad to be back working again.

"Coach McDaniel brings a different type of energy into the program, so we're excited about that, too."

The 2021 season was a tale of two halves for the Dolphins -- they were statistically one of the worst defenses in the league during the first eight weeks, which featured a seven-game losing streak.

However, the defense fueled Miami's seven-game winning streak that began in Week 9. During the streak it led the NFL with a 40% pressure rate, allowed a league-low 257 yards per game, held opponents to a league-low 28.6% third-down conversion rate and held six opponents under 200 total yards. The Dolphins finished the season tied for second in the NFL with 48.0 sacks and tied for eighth with 26 takeaways.

They are banking on the second half of last season being more representative of the team's true defensive identity.

"We should be as good as we want to be," Ogbah said. "We've got a lot of guys coming back, a lot of guys in key spots. We've just got to take that one step and get better."

The return of all 11 starters from a season ago brings high expectations, but winning the AFC East won't be easy. Miami is 1-7 in its past eight meetings against the Buffalo Bills, who have won two consecutive AFC East titles and are the favorites again in 2022 after improving this offseason.

But the Dolphins, coming off consecutive winning seasons, have committed more than $186 million in guaranteed money to Armstead, Hill, Howard and Ogbah alone this offseason, and Howard knows what is now demanded of this team.

"To win," he said bluntly.

"We've got to finish off what we started on the defensive side. We've been making plays and getting stuff done for the team. We've got to continue doing that, add more pieces to it and hopefully cause more trouble out there on defense."