‘I have to set the tone.’ Xavien Howard leading inexperienced CB room with Byron Jones out

·5 min read

The Dolphins had finished Day 1 of their joint practices with the Buccaneers in Tampa on Wednesday. The two-hour session featured a strong effort for the Dolphins defense against quarterback Tom Brady, keeping Tampa Bay’s offense out of the end zone all morning.

But when wide receiver Tyreek Hill spoke to Xavien Howard before Thursday’s practice to get a gauge on the defense’s previous performance, the All-Pro cornerback wasn’t satisfied.

“He’s like, ‘I didn’t do too good. I gave up a pass to [Buccaneers wide receiever] Julio [Jones],” Hill recalled after practice. “And I was like, ‘So what you going to do about it today?’ He was like, ‘Man, I’m going to kick his ass today, dawg.’”

The anecdote gives a slight reveal into the psyche of Howard, who’s serving as the sole elder statesman of a relatively inexperienced cornerback room while Byron Jones remains sidelined on the physically-unable-to-perform list.

Through three weeks of training camp, Howard hasn’t been a key storyline as the growth of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and the team’s offense has been a daily headline. But the 29-year-old has approached his seventh training camp with a workmanlike attitude and consistency that’s served as inspiration for many of the novice cornerbacks on the roster.

“I feel like it starts with me. I feel like I have to set the tone for the guys,” Howard said Wednesday. “The guys are getting better — I feel like everybody is getting better each week. I feel like we just have to keep striving. I have to take that leadership role in the cornerback room and set the tone.”

How does Howard set the tone?

“Make plays,” he said. “Make plays, that’s what I do. So setting the tone by making plays out there.”

The Dolphins have limited Howard’s reps in team drills as part of a veteran maintenance program but he’s remained sharp in abbreviated practices. As usual, quarterbacks have avoided his side of the field and his 1-on-1s with Hill have been must-watch TV; Hill acknowledged last week that Howard “has been locking me up in practice.”

“His energy, you can’t explain it,” said Tino Ellis, a third-year corner. “He’s just a great guy all-around. A great leader, hard worker. He really doesn’t say too much but we all feel his energy when he’s in the room and when he says something. And definitely when he makes a play, he’s bringing up the energy.”

Almost every practice, Keion Crossen finds himself watching Howard from the sideline “like a hawk.” He’ll study the way he lines up, the way he moves and attacks a play, trying to take notes to improve his game. And when Howard returns to the sideline, he’s quick to discuss the nuances of a play, asking a teammate what he saw on the sideline. If the roles are reversed, Crossen said, Howard is gracious enough to go through the details of a play for one of the team’s young corners.

“If he can’t speak it to you and show you an example, he’ll show you on the field what he means,” Crossen said. “Whether that’s him taking an extra five minutes out of his day, he’s going to do what he needs to do — as well as our other vets — to show us and make sure we’re on the same page.”

The Dolphins have impact players on every level of their defense and pride themselves on collective efforts from all 11 players. But Howard, who in April received a new five-year deal through the 2026 season, still holds an outsized role on a defense that loves to play tight man-to-man defense. Howard played through a knee injury in the first half of the 2021 season and as the defense struggled amid a 1-7 start, Howard acknowledged his play wasn’t up to his standard. As he got healthier and his performance returned to a Pro Bowl level, Howard’s coverage was a big factor in the defense’s turnaround and a 8-1 finish. Howard ended the season with five interceptions and was named to his third Pro Bowl in four years.

Although head coach Mike McDaniel said Jones is planning to be ready for Week 1, if he’s unavailable then Howard’s importance to the defense would be magnified. Aside from fourth-year player Nik Needham, the other nine cornerbacks on the roster have a combined 18 NFL starts.

“I had never met X before I got this job. We had played against him once or twice, but it didn’t take me long being here to understand what he means to the rest of the players,” McDaniel said. “There’s something to be said about when you do something at an elite level, you get notoriety from it. And then you continue to do it, people don’t really do that justice where they don’t have the option to show up and [say], ‘Maybe I don’t feel like being good today.’

“So I think he possesses that. I think one of the interesting things is I think he plays off Tyreek as well. Two great competitors that are prideful, that know that every day, they can’t afford to be, ‘Oh, I’m just not on,’ because of the consequences and ramifications for the rest of the team and what we count on them to do on a day-in, day-out basis.”