Scout's Notebook

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Ranking NFL's top five lockdown corners; plus, what Odell Beckham Jr.'s return means for Browns

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:

-- Why OBJ's return could produce fireworks for Cleveland.

-- The truth about Tua Tagovailoa's five-interception practice.

But first, a look at the contract standoff involving one of the league's top cornerbacks ...

If you ask NFL players why they really play football, I believe most would say that their participation in the game comes down to a desire for rings and respect.

Sure, players love the glitz and glamour that comes along with playing in the NFL, but the overwhelming majority of players would like to finish their careers recognized as champions and viewed as one of the best at their position. While luck and circumstances frequently dictate whether a player walks away with a ring, the performance and production on the field ultimately determines the respect a player garners from his peers, coaches and executives.

That respect is reflected in where players fall on the average annual salary spectrum. The best players want to be the highest-paid players at their respective position. Do you think it's a coincidence that we have heard chirping from Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson this offseason in the wake of the blockbuster deals signed by Patrick Mahomes and Dak Prescott in the past year? Those contracts pushed the market value for elite franchise quarterbacks to the $40-million-per-year mark.

Down in Miami, the Dolphins are dealing with a "unique situation" -- in head coach Brian Flores' well-chosen words -- as Pro Bowl CB Xavien Howard holds out over contract demands. Howard signed a five-year, $75 million extension in May 2019, which made him the league's highest-paid cornerback at that time. The sixth-year pro has since watched the Rams' Jalen Ramsey ink a five-year, $100 million deal to become the NFL's highest-paid corner. In fact, Howard's contract places him sixth at his position in average annual value, per Over the Cap. That's one spot behind teammate Byron Jones, who signed a five-year, $82.5 million deal last offseason.

Howard might be willing to accept Ramsey swiping his throne as the No. 1 corner on the compensation list, but it's probably hard for the 2020 All-Pro to come to grips with earning less than a teammate who occupies the CB2 role on the squad. 

"We love X. Let me just go ahead and say that right now, so you can make sure you write that. We love him. He's very productive. He's a team player. He's an important player on this team but again unique situation," Flores said amid Howard's minicamp absence earlier this week. "We want to keep him here, but again markets are set, specific to Byron, markets are set differently every year. Yeah, that's part of the conversation. Again, that's what makes this unique."

Howard is asking the Dolphins, who view him as being one year into his extension, to redo his contract with four years remaining on it, which does indeed create an unusual set of circumstances.

"It's a renegotiation of an extension after one year, it's something that honestly has never been done before," Flores said. "I'm not saying we're drawing a line in the sand, but different players set the market every year."

Howard is slated to make $12.075 million in 2021, and he looks across the field to see Jones entering the second year of a deal that pays him $14 million in base salary this season. Granted, the free-agent market was different when Jones was courted in 2020, but I do not blame Howard for being miffed when he has clearly outplayed his counterpart.

That said, the Dolphins have to toe the line when contemplating a reworked contract with their star cornerback. While he's performed spectacularly, Howard has struggled with injuries in the past (missed 24 missed games over the last five seasons, including 11 with a knee injury in 2019) and it is hard to count on a player with an injury history aging gracefully. In addition, Howard's 2019 arrest for domestic battery could factor into the team's thinking. The charges in that case were eventually dropped, and Howard did not face league discipline.

With salary cap considerations also clouding the situation, the Dolphins must consider their options before handing Howard a new deal that rewards him for his play between the lines. The team could offer to convert some of his future money into guarantees (he currently has no guaranteed money remaining after 2021) or rework the contract to add incentives based on his play to push his salary closer to the top of the market. Whether Howard will find that acceptable is a different matter, but he faces fines of $50,000 per day if he doesn't report to training camp.

Howard is unquestionably one of the top corners in the game and deserves to be paid as such. It will be interesting to see if the Dolphins opt to do right by him after watching the market pass him by so quickly after inking a blockbuster deal.

'21 SEASON: Top five lockdown CBs

With Howard's holdout on my mind, I thought this would be a perfect time to take a fresh look at the pecking order at his position. Here are my top five lockdown corners right now:

Rank
1
Jalen Ramsey
Los Angeles Rams

The most bodacious cover corner in the game claims his spot as the NFL's ultimate CB1. Ramsey not only possesses rare physical traits that make it nearly impossible for a receiver to escape the line untouched, but he is a refined technician with superb instincts and awareness on the island. The two-time All-Pro surrendered just 32 receptions and gave up fewer than 25 receiving yards in 11 contests in 2020, per PFF. 

Rank
2
Marlon Humphrey
Baltimore Ravens

It's hard to find an elite cornerback with inside and outside capabilities. That's why Humphrey deserves such high billing as an all-star defender with a polished game and versatile skills that enable him to snuff out top receivers on the perimeter or in the slot. With the Ravens' top corner exhibiting exceptional lockdown skills, turnover production (one interception and a league-high eight forced fumbles last season) and tackling ability, No. 44 must be included in any conversation about the best players at the position.

Rank
3
Xavien Howard
Miami Dolphins

The NFL's reigning interceptions leader (10) gobbles up errant passes like Pac-Man eats power pellets. Howard's superior instincts, awareness and ball skills combined with his size, length and range makes it incredibly difficult for quarterbacks to find open windows when targeting his side of the field. Moreover, Howard's confidence and aggressiveness have enabled him to emerge as one of the game's premier ballhawks with a league-high 22 interceptions since the start of the 2017 season.

Rank
4
Jaire Alexander
Green Bay Packers

The feisty cover corner from Louisville has quickly joined the ranks of the elite since entering the league in 2018. Alexander displays outstanding instincts and awareness in coverage while challenging pass catchers to earn every yard on the perimeter. With an ultra-competitive demeanor and a fearless attitude, the Packers' CB1 makes life miserable for quarterbacks searching for completions on his side of the field. 

Rank
5
Tre'Davious White
Buffalo Bills

Coaches opting for substance over sizzle will love White's game. The Bills' CB1 is a blue-collar worker on the island with the instincts, awareness and anticipation to shine in the zone-heavy scheme employed by head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. Of the targets thrown into his coverage since 2017, 17.1 percent resulted in either a pass breakup or interception, which places him in the top five among CB qualifiers, per PFF. Make no mistake, White is a high-end playmaker who delivers consistent results.

ODELL BECKHAM JR.: Why Browns' WR1 is indispensable

Perhaps Odell Beckham Jr.'s flashy style and flamboyant game rub observers wrong, but I cannot understand why anyone would think the Super Bowl-hopeful Browns should dispose of their WR1.

Sure, Cleveland rode a magic carpet ride to last year's AFC Divisional Round without No. 13 in the lineup, but there's no question in my mind the team's offense is more dangerous and dynamic with the three-time Pro Bowler on the field.

"[Beckham] is an elite player. Not having him out there, we had to fight and claw to continue to have offensive success," Browns offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said Thursday in a video call with local reporters.

"We will be better with Odell, no doubt."

While some observers will point to the Browns' offensive line and five-star running backs (Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt) as the driving force of the offense, the overall unit certainly benefits from the presence of a premier pass catcher/playmaker on the perimeter. OBJ's big-play potential as a vertical threat or catch-and-run specialist puts defensive backs on high alert and challenges defensive coordinators to come up with play calls that neutralize his potential impact while also leaving the frontline with enough bodies to defend one of the NFL's top running games.

The cat-and-mouse game between defensive play callers and Browns coach Kevin Stefanski becomes a world-class chess match on the grass with No. 13 deployed like a queen, particularly when the Browns align in 12 personnel (one RB, two TEs, two WRs). Despite battling several injuries over the past four years, which have hampered his overall production, he's still managed two 1,000-yard receiving seasons during that time while averaging 13.6 yards per catch (15th highest, min. 175 catches). And the highlight reel from his spectacular first three seasons in New York still puts a fear factor in defensive backs that is hard to shake.

"Anytime you have a great athlete, you see a lot of coverage roll to that player," Van Pelt said. "It's not always great to be double teamed all of the time, but sometimes, that's going to happen when you're great. I would expect teams to have to honor Odell, and potentially at times, put two guys on him."

With OBJ spooking defenders like the Boogeyman, the Browns have the capacity to dictate terms with an offense that features A-plus playmakers at each of the skill positions. If opponents focus on neutralizing No. 13 with double coverage, the Browns can target Jarvis Landry on the other side of the field or attack the middle with Austin Hooper, David Njoku and Harrison Bryant. Focus too much on the Browns' passing attack and Chubb and Hunt will chew up yards behind a beefy offensive line that will face fewer "plus-one" defensive fronts due to OBJ's presence on the outside. Pick your poison.

Considering how well the Browns played down the stretch with an all-star on the sideline, the Dawg Pound could house the NFL's most explosive offense with OBJ back in the fold.

TUA'S ROUGH PRACTICE: Much ado about nothing

"We talkin' 'bout practice?!"

Perhaps Tua Tagovailoa should've channeled his inner Allen Iverson when quizzed about his five-interception performance on the first day of the Miami Dolphins' mandatory minicamp. The turnover-filled effort set the Twitterverse on fire, with armchair quarterbacks crushing the second-year pro due to scattershot play in a practice -- which, by the way, occurred during a steady downpour of rain.

While I understand the general concerns of Fin fans wondering if No. 1 will eventually emerge as a true franchise quarterback, it is impossible to make sweeping judgments on players from minicamp practice, especially from an outside perspective. Many observers do not understand the context of the team's competitive periods and how coaches script practices to create challenges for specific players. Moreover, onlookers don't know if coaches have encouraged players to test out new methods -- in the interest of potentially expanding the toolbox -- in these offseason activities.

"Obviously, you want to be smart, but if there's a time to make mistakes, now's the time to make mistakes," Tagovailoa said after the practice. "We're just trying to see what we can fit in the hole, what we can throw within coverages and come in the film room and then learn from it."

Despite our insatiable appetite for real live football games, we need to remember that offseason workouts are a completely different animal. Some people are panicking about Tagovailoa's performance in seven-on-seven and team drills, minicamp activities in shorts and T-shirts. This is silly.

As a young player with the Jacksonville Jaguars, I was encouraged by defensive coordinator Dick Jauron to experiment with different techniques during practice time, to determine what kind of approach best suited my skill set. The longtime NFL coach and former defensive back told me that you will never know your limits if you fail to test them. In addition, Jauron stressed to me that there is not a scoreboard on the practice field and the mistakes made while experimenting do not count. That's why we should not overreact to reports of Tagovailoa's struggles, particularly when he is working on becoming a more aggressive big-play hunter from the pocket.

"Today, the emphasis for us quarterbacks, we wanted to be aggressive today within the pass game," Tagovailoa said after the rough outing. "We wanted to see if we could fit throws in, see what throws we could make under these conditions. We wanted to push the ball vertical down the field. There were some plays that didn't go our way, but those are plays we can take away from in the film room."

Last season, despite compiling a 6-3 record with a respectable 11:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio, Tua was chastised for his conservative playing style. If the Dolphins want their young quarterback to evolve from game manager to playmaker, they must live with some mistakes on the practice field as the 23-year-old tests his limits as a passer from pocket. And to the credit of Miami head coach Brian Flores, that's the approach he's taking.

"I don't think Tua's going to go into a shell," Flores said after the practice. "I tell him (after a practice like that) to continue being aggressive. The conversations are a lot of what we've already talked about here -- use this time to practice pushing the ball downfield. Then we'll make the adjustments and the corrections."

The Dolphins are encouraging last year's No. 5 overall pick to utilize the practice field as a laboratory to test and refine his game. Whether or not the experimentation bears fruit in the fall, it's a sensible process.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter.

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