There is a little mystery surrounding the Dolphins’ plans for 2nd round selection Xavien Howard. Given the lack of clear starting corner talent on the current roster, one would assume Howard will start at corner. However, analysts suggest Howard might be better at safety and there is ample reason for concern in his downfield skills. Such concern makes starting Howard a risky proposition.
Howard often makes mistakes downfield, allowing receivers to get inside when they shouldn’t, sometimes relying too heavily on reaching rather than using body position, and jumping routes in a gambling manner that can be costly. While Howard does well against up-and-out routes as well as other sideline routes, he often fails to contest receivers when they go inside. If Howard does in fact start at Corner for the Dolphins, look for him to be assigned to cover “one-trick pony speedster” receivers, similar to Mike Wallace, who spend most of their time going down the sideline. Another issue Howard has down the field is on inside routes he sometimes plays too far off receivers, relying on his long reach. Howard does find the ball often, with 5 interceptions his junior year and 10 interceptions in his college career, but a lot of that success is due to frequent gambling that’s often costly in the NFL where receivers are quicker and quarterbacks more precise.
Another red flag is Howards’ poor tackling skills. The good news for Miami is that this issue may be coachable, especially for a young player. Howards’ issue tackling is that he usually goes too low, grabbing lower legs and ankles. He also uses his arms more often than squaring his body up.
A lesser issue Howard has is finding something to do when he’s not man on man. This could have been a problem with Baylor’s scheme and coaching, but many snaps on the tape show Howard floating between line of scrimmage and pass catchers downfield. This will be a critical problem to solve in the NFL where offenses are all about mismatches and short-handing defenses.
Why then did the Dolphins take Howard so high in the draft? He has raw talent and is excellent sculpting material. His size enables him to be physical at the line of scrimmage and to box receivers out if he can get in position. His footwork off the line of scrimmage is superb, and despite his gambling style of play his ball awareness is notable.
Howards’ size enables him to knock receivers off course coming off the line of scrimmage, which is an excellent skill for a corner to have on a defense that has so much invested in its pass rush as the Dolphins do. It gives lineman a little more time to get to the quarterback. Howard also has good footwork against receivers’ initial moves coming off the line. When Howard gets beat, he gets beat somewhere down the field. He almost never gets beat coming off the line. This is a defensive backs coaches’ dream.
Howards’ size also enables him to box receivers out when he can get into position. Most of the tape evidence of this comes on snaps where Howard is covering down the sideline. On many of these plays Howard leaves the receiver no space to work with. For this to be a true advantage in the NFL, Howard will have to learn how to do better on inside routes.
While Howard does give up some big plays when gambling, he more often comes up with big pass breakups or interceptions. For a big player, he times his jumps well and gets to the ball at its highest possible point. This skill is indispensable against redzone targets.
Howard is a raw project, but his detractors are coachable and he has natural ability in areas that are less coachable.