Why QBs should fear Dolphins' Xavien Howard: 'I feel like I'm just getting better'

DAVIE, Fla. -- One day opposing quarterbacks are going to stop throwing Xavien Howard's way, but the Miami Dolphins cornerback is happy that day hasn't come yet.

Howard made the play of the game in Sunday's 29-21 win against the Los Angeles Chargers. Early in the fourth quarter with the Chargers down six near midfield, Howard was playing zone coverage, respecting receiver Mike Williams' ability to go deep on third-and-long. He saw quarterback Justin Herbert lock in on Williams, who began to make a cut. It was go time for Howard, who made a split-second read, stopped abruptly and jumped the route for an interception.

The Miami offense, provided with great field position after Howard's 28-yard interception return, followed with a touchdown that stymied the Chargers' comeback. It started with Howard's rare instincts on display. The scary part for quarterbacks? Howard might not even be in his best form yet.

"It changed the momentum. I feel like I'm just getting better," Howard said. "I wouldn't put myself as saying that this is the best football I've been playing. I think it's probably two years [ago] with seven [interceptions in 2018], so I'll just keep on going, just trying to strive for the best."

Despite all the attention focused on rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, Howard has been the Dolphins' best player this season. In fact, he has established himself as the NFL's best ballhawk over his five-year career.

Since the start of the 2017 season, Howard is averaging more interceptions per game (.40) than any other player who has played at least four games. Howard's 17 interceptions during that period are tied for NFL-best with Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard. But Howard, limited by knee injuries throughout his career, did it in 42 games (1,427 snaps) compared to Byard's 57 games (2,147 coverage snaps).

Nobody is snatching interceptions quite like Howard.

That takes us back to quarterbacks continuing to test him. Safety Bobby McCain, in his sixth season, has watched his entire career as quarterbacks throw at Howard on a timing route only to see his teammate play the ball better than the receiver and head the other way. He said he's "a little bit" surprised they keep trying.

"If they want to try and throw it up against X, it's way less than a 50-50 shot that you're going to come down with it offensively," McCain said. "So we appreciate them keep throwing the ball up and hopefully he'll keep making plays for us."

The only legitimate knock on Howard's game has been his health. He's missed 24 games due to knee injuries, including 11 games in an injury-plagued 2019 season. He had surgery after his latest knee injury last December then a lengthy rehab kept him sidelined until the end of training camp. But once the season began, Howard was ready. He hasn't missed a game this season and he's back frustrating quarterbacks.

"Oh, man, I feel great, man, just coming off last year, a big injury. I'm just getting back to the things I've been doing and just playing ball," Howard said. "Ball finds me, man."

Dolphins coach Brian Flores doesn't get mesmerized by interceptions or sacks. He notes those are big plays, but they typically represent just 1% of what even a star player does on the field. His focus goes on the other 99% of the plays, which is how he grades his players.

"X has very good cover skills. I think people put a lot into interceptions and sacks," Flores said. "But the rest of his game has really improved as well, getting off of blocks and tackling. Just pure coverage when the ball is not being thrown his way."

Quarterbacks have a 48.9% completion rate and 44.6 QB rating when Howard is the nearest defender, both top five among cornerbacks with at least 100 coverage snaps this season per ESPN Next Gen Stats. Howard also has a minus-12.3 targeted expected points added (EPA), meaning opposing teams have lost the sum of 12.3 points when targeting Howard compared to the average cornerback.

After the Dolphins signed cornerback Byron Jones to a big-money free agent deal then used a first-round pick to draft Noah Igbinoghene, people around the league began to question Howard's long-term future in Miami. His injuries and a December arrest for a domestic battery charge that was later dropped left those people wondering if the Dolphins had buyer's remorse after giving him a five-year, $76.5 million extension in May 2019. Even with Howard playing well and staying healthy, those questions came up again at the trade deadline after a source told ESPN Howard heard about a trade inquiry the Dolphins received.

But Howard didn't get traded and he brushed it off when asked about it Sunday, preferring to talk about the team's win. It wouldn't be a surprise if the questions come up again in the offseason, but Howard is making clear with his play that he's valuable for Miami.

Flores clearly values cornerbacks, and the investment in Jones and Howard has produced one of the NFL's best duos this season. It also has allowed defensive coordinator Josh Boyer to be aggressive with his playcalling. The Dolphins have been one of the NFL's most blitz-happy teams, particularly with zero deep defenders. It's a sign of the trust he has in Howard and Jones to hold up in man-to-man coverage.

"It's cool to be out there with one of the best," Jones said. "That dude [Howard] always finds a way to get the ball."

The defense has led the Dolphins during their five-game win steak, sparking a push to make the playoffs a year earlier than many expected. And if there's one Christmas gift they would want early, it's for quarterbacks to keep trying Howard and the ball to keep finding him.