Xavien Howard is the ball hawk Dolphins should build around

DAVIE, Fla. -- Andrew Luck went into superhero mode last Sunday in overcoming a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to defeat the Miami Dolphins, but after the game he sought after Xavien Howard -- the cornerback who temporarily stole his cape.

Howard intercepted the Colts quarterback twice in a matter of 14 seconds late in the second quarter, including an acrobatic theft of a pass intended for T.Y. Hilton while in man coverage.

“He was like, ‘Man, where did you get your hands from,'” Howard recalled. “And we just started laughing and joking like that."

Luck is often very complimentary of all opponents, but there was a special sincerity about this moment. He realized unique talent when he saw it. Howard appreciated the love and kept it moving.

The takeaway? Even through a so-so season team-wise, Howard has been the Dolphins' best player and someone they should build their defense around. He’s also garnering serious respect of NFL players and coaches.

Howard has nine interceptions over his past 16 games, most in the NFL over that period. He has five this season, tied for second in the league. That's ball-hawk territory.

“He's the best CB in the league. You can see that whether looking at stats or film,” safety T.J. McDonald said. “He’s a shutdown CB. He’s a player where you move him around on star players and he can shadow. But also teams have to prepare for him.”

The old cliché that they play defense because they can’t catch doesn’t apply to Howard. He started his football career as a receiver before transitioning to quarterback and then cornerback. He tried to model his game after Champ Bailey and Darrelle Revis.

Howard wants to continue shadowing the best receivers. He wants to be elite.

That is one of the traits that Dolphins defensive backs coach Tony Oden admires about Howard, and it reminds him of one of his former pupils -- Lions cornerback Darius Slay, who has a similar career trajectory.

“Young guys are typically receivers of information, but not givers. He can receive it and give it now,” Oden said. “We give him film study projects and he excels at them -- verbally communicating the answers to any problem that may have came up in his game.”

Howard has played on a Pro Bowl level for over a calendar year now. Last Sunday was Howard’s fourth career game with multiple interceptions, most in the NFL since he entered the league in 2016.

The next step for Howard is getting in the conversation of shutdown cornerback, a place where McDonald believes he already resides. It’s rare to find these days given NFL rules lean heavily toward the offense, but coach Adam Gase believes Howard’s “really close” to being one of those elite cornerbacks who teams are scared to throw at.

Howard baited Luck into his second interception while the corner was in zone coverage. Baiting is a skill Howard has refined recently.

“He’s trending in the right direction. He still has a ways to go. He recognizes that,” Oden said. “He doesn’t feel like he’s a complete player. There’s still a lot of meat on the bone in regards to his development.”

Some of that meat on the bone refers to consistency in all phases of the game -- man coverage, off coverage, tackling and play recognition. But if his recent ascension is any sign, the best is yet to come for Howard.

“I hope they keep throwing at me,” Howard said. “I hope, over these last five games, there’s a lot more opportunities.”