Coach Brian Flores broached the issue at length Tuesday morning, noting he didn't think Howard would be there for minicamp while mentioning "unique" and "renegotiation after one" several times in regard to his contract.
"It's pretty clear this is a contract situation, which we've talked about internally," Flores said. "X is a little bit of a unique situation. He was extended and now we're talking about a potential renegotiation after one year. Those turn into longer conversations. We understand that. We've obviously had a lot of talks and conversations about that and we'll continue to have those and keep them internal, but it's a very unique conversation."
Howard, who hasn't shown up to any portion of the Dolphins' voluntary offseason program this year, can be fined up to $93,085 for skipping mandatory minicamp -- $15,515 for the first missed day, $31,030 for the second missed day and $46,540 for the third missed day.
When healthy, Howard is one of the NFL's best lockdown cornerbacks. He led the NFL in interceptions last year with 10 -- the most by a player since Antonio Cromartie in 2007. He finished third in the AP Defensive Player of the Year voting and had a strong argument for winning the award over Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald and Pittsburgh Steelers' edge rusher T.J. Watt.
Howard feels like he's outplayed the five-year, $75.25 million extension he signed in May 2019, which is set to pay him $12.075 million in 2021 and $49.325 million over the next four seasons. New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who signed a five-year, $65 million free-agent deal in 2017 and is set to make $7 million this year, is also holding out of mandatory minicamp.
The market has changed since both of those deals. Howard saw the Dolphins sign cornerback Byron Jones to a five-year, $82.5 million deal in March 2020, and then Howard outplayed Jones this past season, which has a role in his desire for a new deal. Los Angeles Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey is now the NFL's highest-paid cornerback after signing a five-year, $100 million extension.
"We love X. We love him. He's very productive. He's a team player. He's an important player on this team. Unique situation," Flores said. "We want to keep him here. Specific to Byron, markets are set every year and that's part of the conversation. That's what makes this unique."
Multiple teams have approached the Dolphins about a Howard trade over the past year, but up to this point Miami hasn't shown a serious inclination to deal its star cornerback, sources told ESPN. As Flores has said publicly, the Dolphins want to keep him. The contract situation just makes the relationship a little stickier.
A key point of contention between the two parties is the length of the deal and renegotiating so soon after Howard's May 2019 extension. At that time, the deal made Howard the NFL's highest-paid cornerback at $15.05 million per year. He has played two years on that deal -- but only one on the new portion of the extension given in 2019 was the final year of his rookie deal. He has four years left on his current contract, though only his 2021 salary is left fully guaranteed. His 2022 salary is partially guaranteed for injury.
"After one year, it's honestly something that hasn't been done before," Flores said. "Not saying we're drawing a line in the sand, but different players set the market every year."
New contract adjustments have happened after one year in the past, but that typically is following a short-term extension and not shortly after a longer one like Howard's five-year extension. Maybe there's a happy medium where Howard receives a modest raise with incentives or more guaranteed money, but the overall structure of the deal doesn't change. Though as of now, that common ground hasn't been reached.
One element that hurts Howard's pursuit is that he has missed 24 games in his career because of knee injuries, and health tends to be a bigger question mark as players get older. Howard, 27, is still in his prime, but it becomes a harder argument to get a raise and a restructured deal with the injury question and recent extension.
The Dolphins appear to be a much better team with Howard leading their defense, as Miami jumped from the NFL's 32nd-ranked scoring defense in 2019 (when Howard missed most of the season due to injury) to fifth at 21.1 points per game in 2020, when Howard had his career year (playing all 16 games).