After an ongoing dispute over his contract came to a head, 2020 All-Pro cornerback Xavien Howard has requested a trade from the Miami Dolphins.
Within minutes of Howard's trade request, the Kansas City Chiefs were brought up as a logical landing spot for the top-tier corner. But if the Chiefs choose to target Howard, they'll have a significant hurdle to clear: can they make the money work?
The answer is yes, but some work would need to be done.
The first domino that would need to fall before the Chiefs even think of trading for Xavien Howard would be to get an extension done with star safety Tyrann Mathieu. It seems counterproductive, extending a player to actually create salary cap space, but with Mathieu on a hefty $19.7 million salary cap hit this year, it is very feasible that the Chiefs could add $5 million to $7 million in salary cap space through any contract extension with Mathieu.
With a Mathieu extension done, the Chiefs would increase their already sizable $7.9 million in salary cap space to as much as $15 million if needed.
Another thing to note is that Frank Clark's legal situation and possible suspension could be another avenue for the Chiefs to add some cap space. Even without cutting Clark, any suspension he is handed will cause him to lose the paychecks for the games he misses. These missed paychecks are funneled back into the Chiefs' salary cap. Considering that Clark's game checks this year are around $1.1 million per game, the salary cap savings on these missed game checks could be substantial if he is suspended before the season.
On top of missed game checks, Clark could be released if he is suspended, as I wrote about a few weeks ago. Cutting Clark would easily make enough salary cap room for the Chiefs to trade for Howard, but that's not officially an option until or unless Clark is suspended by the league.
Other than the specifics of how to fit Howard under the salary cap this year, the Chiefs do have to consider the future. With left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and wide receiver Tyreek Hill's contracts also looming, adding two large contracts to the mix will make the salary cap math tough.
The Chiefs, however, love to prove that the salary cap is very flexible. With projections that the cap will explode after 2023, the Chiefs could very well make the gamble to try and survive until then. If the Chiefs backload contracts to make them start increasing when the salary cap explodes, they could have their cake and eat it too.
One thing that stood out in Howard’s statement was his phrasing about how he "never once asked for a completely new contract" and that his proposals to the Dolphins were "cap friendly." If what Howard is saying is how he truly feels, then it stands to reason that he could offer the same olive branch to the Chiefs. If all Howard wants is to restructure some of his base salaries into guaranteed money and add a bit of guaranteed salary to 2022, then it is very easy to see how the Chiefs could make the salary cap math work. With Brown and Hill's upcoming deals, this might be the only way the Chiefs could feasibly make a trade for Howard work with the salary cap.
What would an updated contract for Howard look like? If we can believe that Howard just wants an updated contract that can be cap-friendly, perhaps he would be happy with the following:
2021: $7.875 million cap hit. Lowered after restructuring $7.5 million of base salary.
2022: $16.25 million cap hit. New base salary guarantee of $4 million added on.
2023: $15.28 million cap hit. $5.15 million in dead cap if cut.
2024: $14.13 million cap hit. $1.875 million in dead cap if cut.
With a simple restructure and a new base salary guarantee, none of which adds any new money to the contract, Howard gets the next two years guaranteed. In 2022, the Chiefs could look at his contract for another restructure if he plays well giving him even more guaranteed money. The security Howard wants has been delivered without adding money to his contract.
A few final things to consider about the Howard trade aren’t necessarily money-related, but tertiary factors. The draft capital the Dolphins will be seeking in return for Howard would almost certainly be the Chiefs' 2022 first-round pick plus a bit more. Brett Veach has to make sure the fit and player are right before letting go of a first-round pick. If he thinks the value is fair and the fit is good, Veach has shown he has no particular attachment to first-round draft picks, so a trade is certainly possible.
Howard has also dealt with his fair share of injuries. He has only played 15 or more games in a season two times so far in his five-year career in the NFL. Last year was far and away his best year as a professional, so the Chiefs would be paying for his peak value coming off his healthiest year. That should be enough to give anyone at least a little bit of doubt and should be weighed into the decision as well.
Considering all the factors involved, a trade for Howard is very tempting for the Chiefs. Slotting Howard in as the Chiefs' top corner would take the Chiefs' cornerback group from middling to a strength. If second-year cornerback L'Jarius Sneed takes the next step, the Chiefs secondary could be one of the better units in the entire league with Howard in the mix.
After re-signing Mathieu, the Chiefs should definitely be calling the Dolphins to see what their price is and what contract additions Howard would want from his new team. If everything is doable, then pull the trigger. Let the NFL world wonder if the Chiefs can keep getting away with it.