How much better can he get?
That's the tantalizing unknown when it comes to cornerback Xavien Howard. Now in his fourth season, he is already among the top cornerbacks in the League. He proves it every game, every practice, every chance the ball is thrown in his direction.
Think about where he is right now. He is coming off his first Pro Bowl season when he was selected the team's MVP. He's got the comfort of a mega-contract, the experience of 34 starts and a resume that already includes 11 interceptions, a couple of them off a guy named Brady.
He's also having a wonderful summer. Healthy and obviously very happy, Howard has wasted no time exhibiting his special skillset to this new coaching staff. I can't think of a single practice when he didn't make at least one impactful play. In the first practice last week against the Bucs, Howard stepped in front of a Jameis Winston pass and turned it into a Pick-6.
Just his way of reminding the Bucs he was out there. As if they needed a reminder.
On a team lacking star power, a team trying to build a nucleus of young, promising players, Howard is the example for others to follow. You want commitment? Work ethic? All those intangibles that you just can't teach? Howard checks every box.
At just 26 years old, he has a chance to become the best cornerback this franchise has ever seen, and I understand that's a powerful statement. But with all due respect to players like Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain in the 2000s, Don McNeal in the 80s and Curtis Johnson and Tim Foley in the 70's just to name a few, none of them can truthfully approach the overall talent level of Xavien Howard.
You would think this summer might have been especially challenging for Howard, learning a new defense that is so foreign to anything he had experienced before. But watching him on the field in training camp, and seeing how that translated to the first few preseason games, it is clear he already has a command of this defense.
Though you won't know it listening to him talk.
"It's a different system so I've got to use different techniques," he says. "It's like I'm a rookie again. It's something new and I have to learn on the fly. I'm just trying to get comfortable so I have the confidence to just go out and play."
If he's not comfortable now, it's scary to think how good he might be when things actually start making sense.
"He's a very gifted player," said coach Brian Flores, which tells you all you need to know about first impressions.
See, in so many ways, Howard is both the present and the future of this team. He is the present because there is no more talented player on this team and because he is clearly in his prime and capable of shutting down, or at least slowing down, the best receivers in the league. He is the future because the contract he signed last May seals his presence in South Florida for at least the next five seasons. On a team in a rebuild mode, he is one of a promising dozen or so players who are firmly part of the long-term plan.
"I'm blessed to be here," he says. "I'm happy everything worked out the way they did."
The journey for Howard hasn't always been easy. He grew up in the Fifth Ward, one of the roughest parts of Houston where so many take the wrong turn and never find their way. But Howard persevered, using sports as his ticket out, and proving during his three seasons at Baylor that he belonged on the next level. He battled injuries here for a while, injuries that clearly slowed his progress, but each time he came back determined to make up for lost time.
You can go through his first three seasons and point to a handful of plays, maybe back-to-back interceptions of Andrew Luck or maybe the night he picked off Tom Brady twice, as moments that helped define who he is and what he could be. But it's the overall consistency of his play that has probably stood out most.
How comforting it must be to be able to put Howard out there on an island of sorts, knowing the job will get done and additional help isn't necessary. Move him around. Line him up against the best receiver out there. Doesn't matter.
"It's a privilege and an honor to be out on that island by yourself," he said. "It's really about who wants it more. You've got to take pride in it. You've got to have that confidence."
Howard says he's spending this summer working on every phase of his game. Tackling. Anticipating. Understanding. Even catching the ball, something he has already shown to be awfully proficient at.
"Got to keep growing," he says. "Can never stop improving."
How much better can he get?
Sit back, it's going to be fun finding out.