Defensive Cornerstone: How Xavien Howard Will Improve Miami’s Secondary

The Miami Dolphins followed up their shocking selection of Laremy Tunsil, with a pick that addresses one of their biggest needs: cornerback. Xavien Howard is now the newest player in South Beach. The defensive back out of Baylor comes as somewhat of a shock in this situation, as Mackensie Alexander and Kendall Fuller seemed to widely be considered the top corns available heading into day two. Nonetheless, let’s take a look into the game of the former Bear.

Background & Stats:

Inexperienced at the position, Howard finally got onto the field as a redshirt sophomore in 2014. He started 26 games in his final two seasons, and became a noted playmaker in the defensive backfield. He totaled 93 tackles, nine interceptions and 23 pass breakups as a starter, while being named an All-Big 12 honorable mention in both seasons.

Despite being solely a reserve player and special teamer at the beginning of his college career, Howard felt strongly enough about his performance in 2014 and 2015 that he declared early for the draft. At the NFL Combine, he had solid, if not unspectacular, numbers across the board. He ran the 40-yard dash and 3-cone drill in 4.58 seconds and 7.18 seconds, respectively, and had a broad jump of 122 inches.

Positives:

Howard has the necessary height, weight and arm length to eventually succeed as a number one corner in the NFL. At 6’0, 200 pounds he should have no problem matching up against the league’s bigger receivers. He is physical in coverage, and consistently fights to break up passes and bring down ball carriers.

He has quick feet and impressive short area acceleration that should suit him well in zone-coverage, and the hip fluidity to succeed in man-coverage as well. This next play is a great example of his shutdown potential if he properly develops:

howard man coverage

These attributes allowed him to be extremely statistically successful over the past two seasons.

Despite manning the position for only a short amount of time, Howard carries a confidence level with him that all of the best corners seem to have. He is a hard work, and plays like he wants to impact the game on every play. Perhaps his best trait, however? He has fantastic ball skills as evidenced by his high interception total, and has the instincts in coverage that allow him to consistently be in the right positions to be a playmaker:

Howard interception

This play shows Howard’s playmaking instincts, and his potential in zone coverage. As the play breaks down, Howard follows the eyes of the quarterback, leaves is man and secures the interception.

Overall, despite lacking jaw-dropping athletic abilities, Howard has a decent amount of upside once has time to further develop and refine his game. At the very least, he will be able to force some turnovers early on in his career.

Negatives:

First of all, scouts point out that he is quicker than fast. While he cut down his 40-yard dash time to 4.41 seconds at Baylor’s Pro Day, prospects usually perform better at pro days as opposed to the NFL Combine, and Howard’s tape also supports this sentiment. He shouldn’t have trouble sticking with the taller, more physical pass catchers at the next level, but could potentially have trouble with the burners on the outside of offenses. His tape also shows him having trouble tracking the ball once it is in the air. In the play below, he turns to locate the pass, fails to find it and inexplicably lunges at the receiver to no avail:

Howard tracking

Additionally, despite being physical in coverage and in attacking the ball, he is still not a reliable run defender. His 11 bench presses suggest that he could also afford to add strength, which is especially important considering his inability to detach from blocks in run support. Fortunately, he should only get better in this regard as he gains experience.

The most significant weakness to point out is an obvious one. The Baylor standout has the terrible tendency to grab the opponent when he thinks he is getting beat; he was called for 19 combined pass interference and holding penalties as a starter in the Bear’s defensive backfield. That number easily could have been worse as well. Even on plays where he wasn’t flagged, he can be seen attempting to grab the receiver to keep up. Take this play for example:

Howard penalty

As soon as he realizes he was beat you can see him attempting to reattach to the receiver. This play shows the worrisome tendency to resort to holding, and also shows his lack of top end speed.

When he panics he relies too much on hand play and physicality that will consistently get called in the NFL. If he wants to be a defensive star, this is the part of the game that has to be improved.

How He Fits in Miami: 

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(Jerome Miron – USA TODAY Sports)

At this point, Miami’s troubles in the defensive backfield are well documented. Byron Maxwell is the closest available option to earning the title of number one corner on the Dolphin’s depth chart, and while I truly see him as a wonderful fit in Joseph’s zone-heavy coverage scheme, he will probably never amount to more than “number two corner” material.

Unfortunately, I don’t know if Howard will ever reach that level either. What I do know is that he adds fantastic playmaking to a position group that has sorely missed it in recent years. He will act as immediate depth for defensive coordinator Vance Joseph to take advantage of, and even has a chance to start if he impresses in the offseason.

Joseph must have liked Howard’s fit in his defensive coverage scheme. Putting him in zone-coverage could put him in the perfect position to take advantage of his short area quickness and playmaking ability. Plus, he may not be as inclined to hold in coverage if he isn’t tasked with mirroring a receiver. Overall, this may be a good fit on both sides. Howard will be able to learn from the defensive backs’ guru, and won’t have too much pressure on him to immediately perform, while the Dolphins address perhaps their biggest needs with a playmaker that has a ton of room to grow.

The Skinny:

Admittedly, this pick surprised me. Despite their concerns, Reggie Ragland and Myles Jack seemed like fantastic options for Miami both in terms of value and need. If they were dead-set on taking a cornerback, Alexander and Fuller both seemed like more likely possibilities. With that being said, I never saw Alexander as a great fit in Joseph’s defense, and Fuller’s injury might have been enough to scare them away. Fixing the defensive backfield has seemed like a necessity for awhile now, and Howard could be properly developed with time and experience.

Now, we turn our attention to Round 3. Miami could choose to go in a myriad of directions through the rest of the draft. With Tunsil and Howard now on board, the front office can turn their attention away from offensive line and cornerback for the time being. Linebacker, defensive line and running back are the most obvious target positions at this point, and it will be interesting to see who they prefer in the next round.

Nonetheless, Xavien Howard is now off the board. The cornerback rose up draft boards due to his confidence, playing style and “see ball, get ball” mindset. He looks the part of an NFL cornerback, and if he can continue to work on his technique and cut down on the penalties, the Miami Dolphins will possibly have found themselves a high-end starter at the professional level.

 

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