Just when I thought about the start of training camp – and Aaron Rodgers was reporting to the Green Bay Packers – that the end of speculation about player movement comes with a unused story that forces us to wonder again about the player finding a unused home.
This story comes from South Beach and from the other side of football. On Tuesday evening, Xavian Howard, following reporting on starting a training camp with the Miami Dolphins, took to social media to explain his reasons for asking for the trade. In the lengthy statement, Howard describes how through his agent he tried to reach a solution to his contract dispute in favor of both sides, but following being refused, his only recourse was to ask for a deal:
What would a potential suitor get in getting Howard?
One of the best talents in his position, and a very valuable place at that.
Over the former few seasons, Howard has established himself as one of the top players in NFL coverage. In 2018, Howard allowed the NFL’s passing rating to only be 62.6 on target, and scored seven interceptions. Those were his career highs until final season, when his ten interceptions topped the league.
Furthermore, Howard has been ranked as the best cover player in the NFL according to Next Generation stats. Under their analysis, Howard allowed a passer rating of only 46.5 when targeting, and allowed an average of only 2.8 yards per class. Howard also produced the -34.5 Target Expected Score added, which was the best in the league.
According to their analysis, part of the reason for Howard’s success final season was the Dolphins’ decision to preserve Howard off the line of scrimmage:
Having spent nearly 70 percent of his cover footage in press coverage in 2019, Howard pressed opposing receivers only 32.2 percent of the time in 2020, with excellent results. Only Marcus Peters was more effective in press coverage final season, with Howard finishing second to CP Ravens (-20.6) in the EPA target in such throws at -16. Some teams chose to challenge Howard deeply and learned that this was also a bad decision. He scored four interceptions on deep goals, the largest in the NFL in 2020, and finished with a target EPA of -17.4 on those goals, the lowest in the league.
Away from the numbers, what is shown in the movie when you study Howard? What might suitors get in the back corner?
Man coverage specialist.
Let’s start with that second solid block mentioned in Next Gen Stats writing, covering it in a vertical scrolling game. Howard’s style of tolerance featured in the movie throughout the 2020 season as fouls tried to attack him. Take this play against the New York Jets:
Perriman takes an outside version and gets into his vertical run rapid. Instead of panicking, Howard reached inside the receiver’s hip and seemed to match his pace, reading Berryman’s eyes. This puts him in a position to play on the soccer ball at the arrest point, preventing big play.
Here is another example of Howard matching the vertical threat down, this time on a post road:
Howard is again in the press alignment, facing rapid rookie Henry Roggs III. Las Vegas Raiders use extensive formation to try to generate traffic, and it almost works. But instead of jamming the receiver off the line, Howard reads his release and gets up quickly, matching back to the WR’s quick release. Howard works in track style, back at the hip from the receiver, when the Ruggs tries to shove him with an combative stride outward to attract Howard into thinking he’s going a corner way. Howard does not take the bait, and is in a position to dismantle any potential landings.
Besides what he can do in a field passing game, Howard’s aptitude to recover and erase a breakup is what makes him such a perilous player. Take his second interception of the season, which came against the Seattle Seahawks. Howard is matched against the perilous DK Metcalf in the red, and outside the line Metcalf expands as he is released, indicating a conceivable vanishing path. Howard responds by shuffling his feet outward, which is understandable given the situation and field position. But then, Metcalf cut under him in the way of the peek, forcing Howard to enter recovery mode:
Once again, you see Howard recognize the road and drive down the hip, positioning himself to intercept. The recovery here is distinguished, and it requires exceptional awareness and speed in the short area to be competent to drive to the pickup point and overtake Russell Wilson’s throw. It’s these kinds of traits that make someone exceptional to cover in the NFL today.
Howard’s covering abilities force offenders to try and use the pre-snap move to put him in a firm situation. In a few plays already discussed, the offense sent Howard receivers into motion, forcing playmaker CB to adapt prior the play. This alone is proof of his aptitude as a cover player. But this example from his Week 6 match against the Jets combines that aspect with his recovery skills. The planes put Jeff Smith in a left-to-right motion, then had him run on a crossing over the middle. When the ball is cut, Howard is still in position, and Smith has the advantage of the off-line lever running inward. Once again, watch Howard recover from the objection:
Again, Smith has the advantage of off-line leverage as a result of a pre-snap move, but Howard hits the low hip and recovers easily, diving in fore of this interception throw. Can a better throw end? Perhaps, but this is almost a textbook from CB.
Speaking of the textbook, the final area of Howard we’ll test is his aptitude to tap and close on tracks. This also requires not only elite recognition, but also elite skills in changing direction. For the back corner to quit at a dime, reverse and back to the pickup point and blocking completion takes a pleasing mix of character.
But that’s exactly what Howard brings to the table, as he did here in Jared Goff’s breakout throw intended for Josh Reynolds:
Reynolds runs a track to quit, trying to sell Howard on a vertical play. He derails the line with an inward blow prior bending toward the boundary, a move designed to tempt Howard to purchase that Reynolds goes deeper. But then the receiver quickly stops, hoping Howard’s momentum will shove it down and create the disconnect. However, playmaker CB reads the trajectory perfectly and jams into his breaks, returns to the pickup point and breaks the throw.
To put that together, let’s take a look at this video of Howard pitting Justin Herbert, which is a distinguished example of not only Howard’s elite traits but also how he fit into final season’s Dolphins defense:
Altogether, Howard offers the Dolphins – or any potential suitors – the traits needed to serve as a closing back corner in today’s NFL. Howard can handle just about anything a corner cover man is asked, and teams looking to hire heavy man cover schemes would be knowing to inquire about his services. Howard has dealt with injuries in the former, including a left knee injury that required surgery in December 2019, but players with his skills represent a valuable defensive piece in the NFL today. It may be the Arizona Cardinals to watch, who have added a few pieces to the defensive side of football this season, including cornerback Malcolm Butler, but the inclusion of Howard would go a lengthy way toward cementing that lofty school run.