Armando Salguero

Return of Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard more complex than you think

Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard walks off the field in the second quarter as the Miami Dolphins host the Tennessee Titans at Hard Rock Stadium in September.
Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard walks off the field in the second quarter as the Miami Dolphins host the Tennessee Titans at Hard Rock Stadium in September. adiaz@miamiherald.com

The Miami Dolphins defense is getting a talent infusion this week as defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said Wednesday he expects middle linebacker Kiko Alonso and perhaps cornerback Xavien Howard to play Saturday against the New York Jets.

Joseph also said he is less optimistic linebacker Jelani Jenkins will be available for the game.

The return of Alonso will mean the Dolphins get back their leading tackler and will put Mike Hull back into a reserve and special teams role. Alonso missed Sunday’s game against Arizona because of a hamstring injury.

The possible return of Howard is interesting. The second-round pick has played only four games this year and hasn’t gotten any game action since Sept. 29. He injured his knee during practice the week prior to bye week and had his second knee surgery in as six months to repair the damage.

So even if Howard, who has been practicing for three weeks -- has a good week of practice and proves he deserves to finally return to action, Dolphins coaches have to seriously weigh how they use him.

I can tell you this:

It won’t be as a starter. The Dolphins are pleased with the work of Byron Maxwell and Tony Lippett right now. They remain the starters.

It won’t be as a slot cornerback. Howard has not worked at the slot and the Dolphins do not consider him a slot cornerback.

If Howard does play it will be perhaps a handful of plays in place of Lippett. And even that has to be massaged because the Dolphins don’t want to affect Lippett’s confidence or the chemistry the secondary has forged as constituted.

So the decision has to be made when to pick a spot for Howard to play -- again, assuming he has a good couple of days of practice Wednesday and Thursday.

This issue will be interesting to monitor the final weeks of the season.

Once Howard proves (or doesn’t) that he is completely back and worthy of more playing time, my sense is the Dolphins will weigh how Howard and Lippett practice and play week to week and decide who starts based on that.

It could be that the matter takes care of itself -- as things like this often do -- when one player either rises or another falls due to performance or injury. Assuming, however, that both players stay healthy and play at a relatively even level, then the Dolphins have a great problem:

Competition at starting cornerback among two players worthy of starting.

One more thing: Joseph said Byron Maxwell will be covering New York Jets receiver Brandon Marshall all over the field on Saturday.

That’s what the Dolphins did the last time they played the Jets, a 27-23 victory in October. That was an interesting matchup because Marshall before the game said the Dolphins made a poor trade in moving down four spots in the first round of the 2016 draft in exchange for Alonso and Maxwell.

Well, Maxwell limited Marshall to five catches for 46 yards -- the third lowest yards per catch average Marshall posted this season. After the game Marshall complained Maxwell held him every play.

Maxwell mostly smiled after that game.

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