This is a time of year when NFL analysts, whether on television, radio or online, will offer all sorts of rankings. And those rankings, as sure as Tom Brady likes to stir the pot, always create a lot of backlash based on who has been left out.
And that brings us to Xavien Howard and the recent Pro Football Focus list of the top 50 players in the NFL right now. More precisely, it brings us to Howard NOT being on that list.
And we're here to point out why Howard absolutely, unequivocally, undeniably should have been on the list.
We'll get to that in a bit because first, let's give credit to the author of the list, Sam Monson, for explained his rationale for leaving out those who barely missed making the cut, and this is what he wrote about Howard:
"Xavien Howard was as good as it got in 2020. Though Green Bay's Jaire Alexander finished the season with the top PFF grade of any corner (90.5), Howard was right behind in second place (87.3). The gap between the two players was far closer when looking at just coverage grade (90.6 to 89.6). Howard led the league in interceptions with 10, and he also had 10 pass breakups to go along with impressive numbers across the board.
What separated him from the likes of Alexander was that he was beaten more often in coverage. Howard gave up four touchdowns over the season — twice as many as Alexander — and more than twice the receiving yardage. But the PFF50 is not just about 2020; it’s about projecting play into the next season. Alexander’s PFF grade has steadily improved with each passing year, and it has never been bad, whereas Howard’s career year came somewhat out of the blue.
Of the past four seasons, three of them saw Howard earn overall PFF grades of 65.0 or lower, an average to below-average mark. He was spectacular in 2020, but he has always been a boom-or-bust player, and sometimes the variance breaks a player's way over a season. It seems unlikely Howard will perform at the same level next season."
So now here are some of the issues with that rationale:
1. It wasn't just Alexander who was placed ahead of Howard because there were FIVE cornerbacks in the top 50. Alexander was first among CBs at No. 14 overall, followed by the Rams' Jalen Ramsey at 16, the Ravens' Marlon Humphrey at 29, the Broncos' Bryce Callahan at 36 and the Giants' James Bradberry.
2. For comparison purposes, we'll leave Callahan out of the group because he's a slot corner, but Howard blew away the other boundary corners in 2020 when it comes to opponent passer rating when targeted (per pro-football-reference.com). Howard was at 48.3, compared to 67.4 for Alexander, 68.1 for Ramsey, 80.8 for Bradberry and 84.3 for Humphrey.
3. Of course, we don't need to mention that it was Howard and Alexander on the AP All-Pro first team last year.
4. We also don't need to mention that Howard was third in the NFL Defensive Player of the Year voting behind Aaron Donald and T.J. Watt, making Howard the highest vote-getter among cornerbacks.
5. To suggest that Howard's 2020 performance "came somewhat out of the blue" is, no disrespect, ridiculous. Let's remember that Howard tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with seven and his 61.2 opponent passer rating when targeted again was better than any of the four boundary corners on the top 50 list. So, no, 2020 wasn't the first time Howard had a big year, though obviously his performance took a dive in 2019 when his season was cut short by a knee issue that required surgery. The reality is that it was 2019 that was the aberration because Howard first established himself as an elite cornerback in the second half of the 2017 season.
The bottom line is that putting together a list of the top 50 players in the NFL right now and not including Howard is just really hard to justify, unless you want to project that he's going to have knee issues again or that his contract situation will keep him from performing the way he has.
But those are almost "worst-case-scenario" projections. The bottom line is there are not four boundary cornerbacks better than Xavien Howard right now.