Should the Detroit Lions trade for Xavien Howard?

Pride of Detroit

Xavien Howard is not happy with his contract with the Dolphins, and it could mean a star cornerback is on the market. Howard has 18 interceptions in the past three seasons—one of which was shortened due to injury—and a first-team All-Pro selection in 2020. Arguably a top corner in the league, many teams will be inquiring about him.

But should the Detroit Lions be one of those teams?

Fit with the Lions

There’s no question that Xavien Howard would instantly improve the Lions defense. The current starters are unclear, but two of Jeff Okudah, Amani Oruwariye, and Quinton Dunbar will start on the outside, while one of Mike Ford or Corn Elder will start in the slot. Adding in Ifeatu Melifonwu and it is a largely young core, but that type of potential does come with some pitfalls. Okudah and Oruwariye struggled last year, and while there is more optimism for the defense under Aaron Glenn, it is just that: optimism. Until they prove it on the field, you cannot expect them to be elite corners. The Lions need an elite corner, and Howard would be that guy.

Cost to acquire

The most significant hurdle for this deal to happen is the cost. It is rare that All-Pro cornerbacks in their prime become available, and the cost follows suit. Working to lower the price is the fact that he has publicly asked for a trade, but don’t expect him to get shipped off for nothing.

Perhaps the best and most recent comparable to a possible Xavien Howard trade is the Jalen Ramsey trade. In the middle of the 2019 season, the Jaguars traded away their star corner to the Rams for a 2020 first round pick, a 2021 first round pick, and a 2021 fourth round pick. At the time, Ramsey was already an All-Pro and multi-Pro Bowler. However, Ramsey was 25-years old at the time and just entering his prime.

Howard is in his prime right now at age 28, but it’s unknown how much longer that will be—the age 30 barrier is usually when you see some regression from cornerbacks. The Lions trading for Howard would almost be a polar opposite of when they traded away Darius Slay. When Slay was traded to the Eagles early in 2020, he was 29 years old and also had an All-Pro and multiple Pro Bowls under his belt. Also like Howard, Slay was asking for a new contract. The Lions were only able to net third and fifth-round picks for him, which were eventually used on Jonah Jackson and Quintez Cephus.

I think a deal could get done for a 2022 first and third, with Oruwariye packaged to Miami, as well. Howard shouldn’t net what Ramsey got, but he should also yield a greater return than Slay. I also think Miami would want some youth at corner. Okudah is likely off the table, but Oruwariye’s future with the team is in limbo. He will be an unrestricted free agent in 2023, but following the selection of Melifonwu and signing of Dunbar, his starting days could be behind him. He could turn it around in a Matt Patricia-less defense, but he could also continue to be mediocre. Right now, his best asset is potential, and if Miami covets that, I’d be willing to part with him.

When factoring in the cost to acquire, you need to look at that contract Howard will need to receive. He wants to be paid like a top cornerback. Howard is currently on a five-year, $76.5 million deal, and his average yearly salary of $15.05 million is sixth among corners. Still, he wants more. Ramsey currently has the highest average yearly salary at $20 million, and it seems like Howard wants similar money. At his age, you might be able to get him for around $18 million or $19 million, but it is still a hefty fee. The Lions currently have around $18 million in cap space, so some reworking or cap casualties would have to happen.

Verdict

Although I would love Howard with the Lions, I can’t see a deal working out. Even if the Lions acquired him for a third and fifth like the Darius Slay trade, signing Howard to the contract he wants would nuke the Lions’ cap space. The contract rework of Jared Goff was met with a lot of criticism due to the strain it put on the salary cap, and signing Howard would push it to the brink.

The Lions have some bad contracts to move on from down the road—Goff, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, maybe even Trey Flowers—but until that happens, Howard’s contract would really hinder the rebuild effort. Next year, the Lions will need at least one top receiver, some safeties, and a linebacker or two if Jamie Collins and Alex Anzalone don’t work out. They will probably have to extend T.J. Hockenson soon as well. They could draft some of those positions in 2022, but expecting to draft around five starters in one class is a bit too much. The Lions really need that cap space to facilitate their rebuild, and while Howard would instantly be the best player on defense, it would result in a lot of holes elsewhere.

I think the Lions are better off hedging their bets on Okudah, Oruwariye, and Melifonwu than trading for Howard. Even if that trio doesn’t succeed, the Lions could spend some of their draft capital on a cornerback. Trading for Howard is a win-now move, and the Lions are anything but win-now.

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