Per ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Miami signed Howard to a five-year, $76.5 million deal with $46 million guaranteed on Thursday night, making him the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL. The record-setting extension follows what was a career year for the 2016 second-round pick, as Howard earned career-highs in overall grade (77.3), run-defense grade (83.6) and coverage grade (75.3) across 803 defensive snaps in 2018.
Howard’s career, however, has been marred with ups and downs. Among the 114 NFL cornerbacks targeted 100 or more times in the last three years (2016-18), he ranks just 58th in coverage grade (70.3), 42nd in forced incompletion percentage (15.9%), and 42nd in yards allowed per coverage snap (1.10).
The 6-foot-1, 192-pound Baylor product has ideal size, length and athletic ability to play press man and thrive in the NFL, but the results are inconsistent. He’s flashed elite play in press man in bursts throughout his career, but his three-year grades in man coverage, both at and away from the line of scrimmage, are underwhelming. He’s earned 30.0 and 29.9 coverage grades in press man in 2017 and 2018, respectively, largely because his highlight-reel plays are too often followed up by penalties.
Only five NFL cornerbacks have been penalized on a higher percentage of their targets in the last three seasons than Howard, and a stark majority of his coverage penalties are a product of getting too physical or grabby in press man coverage. In fact, 18 of the 21 coverage penalties he has committed in his career have been called when he’s been in press man coverage.
In fact, if we remove Howard’s penalties in man coverage from the equation, his three-year coverage grade jumps from 56.8 to 77.3.
Committing penalties at Howard’s rate will always have a negative effect on a cornerback’s coverage grade in PFF’s system, making it no surprise that he’s earned better grades in zone coverage throughout his career. His play in zone isn’t much better and still very much inconsistent, but there are fewer bad plays on his tape when handed zone-coverage responsibilities as opposed to man.
In 2018, Howard allowed 11 receptions from 22 targets for 131 yards, zero touchdowns and just four first downs in Cover-2, Cover-3 and Quarters looks. He also logged four forced incompletions, including two interceptions, and ranked tied for 12th in coverage grade (81.4) among cornerbacks with 20 more targets in said coverages on the year. His 26.8 passer rating allowed in the three coverages led all qualifying cornerbacks this past season.
Turn our attention to his targets of 10-plus air yards in zone coverage this past season, and his 70.2 coverage grade and 26.7% forced incompletion percentage rank 14th and eighth, respectively, among 80 qualifiers.
The same natural ability (i.e., size, length, athleticism, speed) that made Miami determined to turn Howard into an elite press-man cornerback in the NFL shows up in his play in zone coverage. And he’s less prone to penalties when removed from the tight one-on-one situations he’ll find himself in when playing man coverage.
While all teams want their version of Stephon Gilmore – the NFL’s highest-graded cornerback overall and in press man a year ago – new Dolphins defensive coordinator Brian Flores isn’t bringing him to South Beach. And as much as Flores will want Howard to fill Gilmore’s shoes in Miami’s defense without a hitch, more harm than good will follow suit if he can’t hone Howard’s physicality and do away with absurd penalty rate.
The safer play is to limit Howard’s snaps in press man and pick his battles for him depending on the matchup, giving him less opportunity to see flags thrown his way and more opportunity to have high-floor production in off-zone coverage. The aggressive play, the likelier of the two options with Flores at the helm, is to bank on Howard improving in Year 4 to the tune of much fewer penalties and lockdown-man coverage across all matchups.