How Miami Dolphins fearlessly traded NFL draft picks to set up success

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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DAVIE, Fla. — This was March 25, a Thursday night around 10, exactly five weeks before round one of the NFL draft. Miami GM Chris Grier sat in his rental Chrysler outside the Residence Inn in Ann Arbor, Mich. Grier would attend the Michigan Pro Day in the morning, but now, here he was, finishing up one of two deals that would re-cast the 2021 NFL Draft.

Miami’s tradeapalooza actually began March 3, when San Francisco GM John Lynch called to gauge the Dolphins’ interest in trading the third overall pick. “We’re open,” Grier said. “We’ll listen.” In less than a month, that listening turned into Miami trading from third to 12th in the first round and picking up two additional first-round picks and a third-rounder. Then, with coach Brian Flores wanting to ensure getting an offensive weapon as the spur to move back up, with the driver’s seat of the rental car as his office, Grier phoned Eagles GM Howie Roseman from Ann Arbor, to work out final details on the deal they’d been discussing: Miami trading the 12th pick plus a first in 2022 to move up to six in this year’s first round.

Grier called owner Steven Ross—who has to sign off on deals of this magnitude—late on this Thursday night.

“Steve was very excited,” Grier recalled. “He likes trades.”

As does Grier. Since taking over as general manager with full personnel power in Miami 28 months ago, Grier has made 28 trades. If that seems like a lot of deals, it is. Trade-happy Baltimore GM Eric DeCosta has made 14 deals in that same 28-month span. Many Miami deals have been done on the clock during drafts. But Grier’s 25th and 26th trades left major imprints on three teams in this draft, and the impact of the deals will be felt for years. San Francisco went all-in to get its quarterback of the future (Trey Lance) at 3; Miami got the receiver/returner it craved (Jaylen Waddle) at 6; and Philadelphia got the third top receiver in this draft (Devonta Smith) at 10. And the Dolphins and Eagles got future high draft picks out of the two trades.

We all talk about how much the game has changed over the years. But if the passing game has revolutionized the game on the field, the trading game has been transformative too. A cadre of young, aggressive general managers, who learn from peers in all sports, don’t treat high picks like immovable objects anymore. In his 28 months as exclusive steward of the Miami roster, Grier has traded away seven first and second-round picks, and acquired 12 of them.

“I think we’re in a different age,” said Grier, an unassuming 51-year-old football lifer, sitting at a long table on the morning of day three of the draft, with Flores at the other end. “Football has evolved. A lot of general managers are willing to trade now—you’ve seen that over the past few years. Some of it probably goes back to the ‘Moneyball’ craze, when people started looking at how it’s done in other sports. You can never say, ‘No, we’d never do this.’ We just always talk about: How can we make our roster better?

A modern general manager in sports, not just football, should have four things going for him:

• He must know how to use leverage.

• He should have one eye on today and the other on tomorrow.

• He can’t be afraid.

• It’s optimal to work with a coach who understands when it’s smart to play for today and when it’s smart to stock up for tomorrow.

Grier is four for four. With Flores as his partner since February 2019—Flores worked in the Patriots’ scouting department for four years before becoming a coach—Grier is paired with a head coach who doesn’t just live for today. When I said that in our meeting, Flores said: “You mentioned that philosophically, coaches are about today and not about the future. I guess I’m more in tune with the future. When I get into my coaching short-term thought process, Chris pulls me out of that . . . We listen to one another and have good collaboration on everything, especially the roster. We have a similar vision for what we want the team to look like.”

Flores and Grier weren’t altogether open with me in how they viewed this draft, but we can infer a few things from it. And this is where the leverage part comes in. The Dolphins sat at three in March but didn’t necessarily need to be at three. They weren’t going to take a quarterback, and, as it turned out, they were keen on a receiver, Waddle, who was not the consensus top receiver available. (Ja’Marr Chase was.) Still, if they went down to 12 with San Francisco, they knew that to get an offensive threat like Waddle, they’d have to move back to the eighth pick, at the lowest, and they definitely wanted to be higher than that.

On March 4, Lynch offered San Francisco’s first-round picks in 2022 and 2023 to move from 12 to three. A very strong offer, two ones to move up nine spots in the draft. Now the Dolphins knew San Francisco wanted to get up that high to take a quarterback. That offer marinated for a couple of weeks. “We weren’t going to officially do the deal with that,” Grier said, “because we knew the importance of that third pick.” And with so many teams coveting quarterbacks in this draft, that’s where the leverage came in. Grier could wait for a more aggressive offer. And knowing he had a good offer in hand, Grier could ask around between four and eight—would any team want to go back to 12?

The Dolphins saw the top of the draft this way: Picks 1, 2, 3, quarterbacks. Pick 4 (Atlanta), a quarterback or tight end Kyle Pitts. Pick 5 (Cincinnati), likely Chase, or possibly tackle Penei Sewell.

“One player we knew, we felt very strongly, would be there at six,” said Flores. The intimation, to me, was that player was Waddle. I got the feeling Grier and Flores were all-in on Waddle, though they never said that specifically.

Grier probably wouldn’t move back to 12 unless he could move back up to get Waddle, or one of the offensive impact players. So when the initial 49er offer came in, Flores was clear what he wanted. “Right away,” said Grier, meaning right after the 49er offer, “Brian was like, ‘If we do this, go down to 12, we need to figure out a way to get back into the top 10.’ “

“We knew that [Alabama receiver] DeVonta Smith, if he was the other guy, who is a very good player, was not going to be there at 12,” Grier said. “We knew the players that we wanted would not be there at 12. We had very good intel, we’d done our work. We were 100 percent sure we were not going to get a targeted player, especially Jaylen, staying at 12. We felt we had to get to, eight was about where we said, but we wanted to get up higher. We weren’t real comfortable at eight . . . We felt six was the spot for us to get Waddle.”

The Eagles, at six, were the perfect target. GM Howie Roseman loved trading, and he had a reason to want to collect draft capital: If Jalen Hurts didn’t put a solid grip on the starting quarterback job this fall, Philly might need draft picks to target one of the top quarterbacks in next year’s draft—or maybe even Deshaun Watson. It was a heavy price, but Roseman wanted a 2022 first-round pick from the Dolphins.

Now Grier knew he could move back into range for Waddle, or a strong offensive threat. One afternoon in late March, Lynch was at his daughter’s school tennis match and his phone rang. It was Grier, telling him they were close to being ready to do the deal—if the 49ers added a third-round pick. That was tough for the Niners, who already were denuding the top of their next two drafts to get a quarterback. Lynch had to think about it. He knew, internally, that it would be a tough pill to swallow. But he had a third-round Compensatory Pick (likely to be about the 104th overall pick, very low in the third round) coming in 2022 from Robert Saleh’s hire by the New York Jets. “A total bonus,” coach Kyle Shanahan called it. So the Niners, after some thought, agreed to add the third-round/Saleh pick as the sweetener to push it over the top.

Lynch wasn’t angry about the late ask for the third-rounder. He’d done almost exactly the same thing in his first 49er draft in 2017, asking Chicago GM Ryan Pace for an extra third-round-pick to get a deal done for Chicago to move from three to two in the first round. Pace did it—and infamously picked Mitchell Trubisky. “I love dealing with Chris,” Lynch said Saturday. “He’s not emotional about it, and his word is everything. Chris is a rock.”

“To me,” Grier said, “It’s never about winning a trade. It’s about being open, honest and working toward getting a deal both sides feel good about.”

There was one other piece to this puzzle. In the first two years Grier and Flores worked together, so much of the draft prep and trading was about the future. This draft was more about the future is now. “The guys we got in ’19, the guys we got in ’20, the guys we got in ’21, that we get in this draft, that’s the team,” Flores said. “You know what I mean? That’s the team moving forward. As we move forward, that’s going to be the crux or the big chunk of our team. They’ll be the reason why we make noise or don’t make noise.” So in 2019, the Dolphins might have moved from three to 12 and kept all their future ones instead of trading a one to move back up to six.

If they’ve picked right, Miami could have six starters on offense from the last two drafts: Waddle, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, and four of the five starters up front: 2020 picks Austin Jackson (left tackle), Robert Hunt (right tackle), Solomon Kindley (right guard) and highly regarded 2021 second-rounder Liam Eichenberg from Notre Dame, who probably will get a shot at left guard. On defense, they’ll need more help from free agents in the last two crops. Byron Jones must play better at corner, pass-rusher Emmanuel Ogbah will have a bookend helper now in the 18th pick in this draft, Jaelan Phillips, and just-signed ex-Pat Jason McCourty comes off a very good 2020 season to buttress the corner.

On Friday, I asked one of NFL’s biggest wheeler-dealers of recent times, Jimmy Johnson, what he thought of the team Grier has produced. “I like his trades, I like his picks,” Johnson said. “I like his approach. I used to say, ‘Do you want to play it safe and be good, or do you want to take chances and try to be great?’

“But you gotta win. Time will tell.”

Flores won’t argue. He said: “Trades are great, picks are great. But we don’t want to be known as a great trading team. We’re here to win.”

The biggest variable for Miami now, of course, is Tagovailoa, the fifth pick in the 2020 draft, coming off a so-so rookie year in which he was benched twice in shaky second halfs. Miami picked him one slot ahead of Justin Herbert last April. Herbert finished his first season as a Charger with the Offensive Rookie of the Year. Tagovailoa finished his first season with questions surrounding his ability to be Miami’s long-term starter. That’s probably not fair. Most often, quarterbacks don’t play great as rookies; Herbert and 2020 top pick Joe Burrow, playing like vets from the start, spoiled it for Tagovailoa.

But there’s much riding on Tagovailoa for Grier. Miami built a warchest of picks to be able to draft a quarterback, and if Tagovailoa’s not the guy, it’ll set the rebuild back significantly—and force Miami to use more draft capital on a quarterback, likely in 2023.

“I never like to put it on one player,” Flores said. “I think we’ve got a lot of young players, and we’re looking for all of those players as well as really everyone on our team to improve in a variety of ways. If they’re putting all the work in, I expect them to improve, get better, and perform better. Tua is obviously at the top of that list. He’s been working. All signs point to—or I would say based on my experience—he’s doing everything necessary to make some improvements. That’s really all we can ask for. My thing is if you put the work in, the results will take care of themselves.

“Last year’s situation is . . . we’ve talked about this numerous times. If he had started the season, we wouldn’t have pulled him. We put him in. We’re in a playoff chase. At that point [second half in game 15, at Las Vegas, when Ryan Fitzpatrick entered in relief], it’s hey, we’ve got to do whatever we’ve got to do to try to win. But no, my confidence wasn’t shaken in him.”

Read more from Peter King’s Football Morning in America column.