Dolphins want future to include Xavien Howard, Ja'Wuan James

Miami cornerback Xavien Howard has 11 interceptions over the past two seasons. Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Miami Dolphins are in the midst of a rebuilding period that likely will take multiple years, but that doesn't mean they will have tight pockets when it comes to keeping talent.

It's March, so talk is heating up about free agency, which officially begins in less than two weeks. Money talks, and the Dolphins said this week in Indianapolis that they want their plan for the future to include cornerback Xavien Howard and, if the price works for both sides, right tackle Ja'Wuan James.

Howard, 25, has one year left on his rookie deal. But there has been speculation about his 2019 roster status when rebuilding became the Dolphins' plan. Howard admitted he heard the trade rumors that circulated for a few weeks. General manager Chris Grier shut down that talk on Wednesday.

"Yes, I'm very confident that he'll be there. Xavien has been in the building. He's coming back, working out and getting in shape again after the Pro Bowl," Grier said. "He's doing good. We've been hanging out around him. He wants to be a Miami Dolphin and we want him to be a Dolphin."

The Dolphins met with Howard's representatives this week in Indianapolis to discuss a long-term extension, a source told ESPN.

Initial talks were positive and are expected to pick up over the coming weeks, a source said. The Dolphins have made it a priority to re-sign Howard to a long-term deal that would pay him a salary commensurate with one of the team's central players.

Of course, if a deal isn't reached, Howard could play out the final season and prepare for Miami to place the franchise tag on him in 2020 or let him reach free agency.

He made a splash after the season finale in Buffalo when he said he wanted to be the NFL's highest-paid cornerback. Washington's Josh Norman now has that designation.

In 2018, Howard was the NFL's co-interception leader with seven, and he earned his first selection to the Pro Bowl despite missing the last four games of the regular season with a knee injury. The 2016 second-round draft pick out of Baylor has 11 interceptions over his past 17 games. He's an ascending ball hawk who already has established himself as one of the NFL's best young cornerbacks.

Grier attempted this week to clarify the Dolphins' 2019 plans by saying the team will not tank. Trading Howard, arguably the team's best player, would be a hard sell to Dolphins fans and seemingly run contrary to the message that Grier gave on Wednesday.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Dolphins' biggest pending free agent is James, who is set to earn a huge payday over the next couple of weeks.

Grier said they plan to engage James and his agents in contract talks after the NFL combine, citing James' recent marriage. But they also seem willing to let him test free agency to see how other teams value him.

"We drafted him here and he's a good, young player. We'd like to have him here and we'll see what the market [is] and what he's looking for, as well," Grier said.

It's hard to find starting-caliber offensive tackles, and it is even rarer for good ones to reach free agency. Those who do hit the market typically are rewarded handsomely.

"It's one less box you have to check going out," Grier said on the value of re-signing James. "At the end of the day, the organization will do what's best for the Dolphins. He's a good guy, he's worked hard, he's been here and is a good teammate, so we'll see what happens."

The scuttlebutt at the combine is that James could surpass $10 million per year if he reaches free agency. Two agents who have offensive linemen as clients said if they were representing James they would aim to pass the five-year, $47.5 million deal that Lions right tackle Rick Wagner signed two seasons ago. If James does pass that deal, he would be the second-highest-paid right tackle in the NFL behind the Philadelphia Eagles' Lane Johnson.

James has expressed excitement about testing free agency, and he's eager to see just how much the Dolphins value him.

"It keeps the continuity there, if we're able to retain him. We sure hope he does [stay]," Dolphins offensive line coach Pat Flaherty said.

The Dolphins signed some bad contracts in previous years that messed up their salary cap, so a primary goal this offseason is trying to fix some of those mistakes. But they also know that money talks, and they'll need a lot of it to keep Howard and/or James.