Jimmy Johnson, who engineered perhaps the most lopsided trade in NFL history, has a special appreciation for those who can augment their teams through savvy deals, resourcefulness and creativity.
And what Johnson and six-time NFL executive of the year Bill Polian have witnessed from Dolphins general manager Chris Grier has left them unabashed admirers.
“Getting future picks so that he could build a team was having foresight rather than [applying] a band-aid for now,” Johnson said in an email exchange. “Extremely impressed with what they have done.. [It] reminds me of another team I coached 30 years ago!”
That would be Johnson’s Cowboys. J.J. accelerated the Cowboys’ rebuild, and created the draft capital to build a championship nucleus, by dealing Herschel Walker and two third-round picks, a fifth-round pick and a 10th-round pick to Minnesota in exchange for eight draft picks, including three firsts and three second-round selections.
Dallas would use those picks to bring in Emmitt Smith, Russell Maryland, Darren Woodson and Kevin Smith, among others —which led to three Super Bowl titles.
Whether several watershed deals by Grier produce anything close to those results must play out.
But the results of his signature trades — involving Laremy Tunsil and the third pick of the 2021 Draft — have produced a treasure trove of assets. And Grier turned those assets into four Pro Bowl quality players and more.
Polian — the former Colts, Panthers and Bills general manager — likes how Grier has acquired impact players without leaving the team devoid of future high draft picks.
“You think about this: That’s almost a complete transformation of a team with nothing but difference-makers,” Polian said by phone this week. “It’s no accident their record is what it is. Chris has done a great job.”
With Tunsil’s Texans playing the Dolphins on Sunday — he and Grier still occasionally text each other — it’s a good time to size up the final results of those deals:
The Tunsil trade — made in August of 2019 — netted the Dolphins two first-round picks, a second-round pick, cornerback Johnson Bademosi and offensive lineman Julien Davenport in exchange for Tunsil, Kenny Stills, a 2020 fourth-round pick and a 2021 sixth-round pick to the Houston Texans.
The second and third deals happened on the same March day, a month before the 2021 Draft:
The Dolphins traded the third overall pick to San Francisco for the 12th pick in that 2021 Draft, plus a third-round pick and first-round picks in 2022 and 2023. The Dolphins then traded that No. 12 pick and a 2022 first-rounder to the Eagles for the sixth overall selection, used on Jaylen Waddle.
This past March, Grier pounced on the chance to snag Tyreek Hill from Kansas City for first-, second- and fourth-round picks in 2022 and a fourth-round pick and sixth-round pick in 2023.
Then Grier, just before this month’s trade deadline, acquired Denver Pro Bowl linebacker Bradley Chubb along with a 2025 fifth-round pick for a 2023 first-rounder, a 2024 fourth-rounder and running back Chase Edmonds. Miami then dealt a fifth-round pick to the 49ers for running back Jeff Wilson Jr., who has been a godsend to the running game.
So here’s what those assets — Tunsil, one first-round pick, a second-round pick and five third-day draft picks, plus Stills and Edmonds (who wasn’t going to be retained past this season) ultimately delivered:
Hill ranks among the NFL’s top three receivers; Chubb is among the league’s premier pass rushers; Holland is considered one of the game’s best young safeties; and Waddle set a rookie record for receptions last season and is even better this year.
Wilson ranks sixth in the league in yards per carry average at 5.4, among backs with at least 100 carries.
Rookies Tindall and Ezukanma mostly haven’t been needed but could emerge into solid pieces. Igbinoghene, after a rocky first two seasons, has a strong 68 passer rating in his coverage area this year and sealed the Pittsburgh game with an interception.
So that’s four former or potential Pro Bowlers, a skilled runner and two potentially helpful rookies in exchange for Tunsil, a first-rounder, a second-rounder and some later-round picks.
Credit Grier not only for pouncing on the opportunity to acquire Hill and Chubb, but also for determining that the Dolphins could move down from No. 3 in 2021 and still get an impact playmaker (Waddle) a bit later in the first round.
There had been some calls (including in this space) for Grier to stay at No. 3 in that 2021 Draft and pick former UF tight end Kyle Pitts. But trading down with the 49ers gave the Dolphins draft assets that were helpful in acquiring Hill and Chubb.
Here’s how Pitts (who’s now out for the year with an MCL injury) and Waddle compare nearly two years into their careers:
Waddle: 26 games, 155 catches, 1,893 yards, 12.2 average yards per catch, 12 touchdowns
Pitts: 26 games, 98 catches, 1,382 yards, 14.4 average yards per catch, three touchdowns
Also credit Grier for picking Holland 36th in 2021, instead of succumbing to temptation — as Denver did — to move up and draft running back Javonte Williams, who ran for 903 yards (4.4 per carry) as a rookie but tore his ACL this season.
Williams would have been a good pick, but Holland was the better choice, because impact safeties are more difficult to find than solid running backs.
Have there been mistakes during the rebuild? Of course. The jury is still out on a few high picks, including Austin Jackson (18th pick) and Igbinoghene (30th).
But no GM is perfect, and the smart moves (Robert Hunt, Phillips, Waddle, the use of trade assets, Terron Armstead, Nik Needham, Kader Kohou, Connor Williams, Raheem Mostert and others) have outweighed the mistakes.
And don’t overlook this: Jerome Baker, unsolicited, praised Grier on Friday for bringing in the right type of players who are team-oriented and self-motivated to put in extra work. There haven’t been any disruptive malcontents on this roster.
So credit Grier for not only helping make this franchise relevant, but completely changing the way he’s perceived as an executive.
“I said on ‘Fox NFL Sunday’ that Chris was my executive of the year,” Johnson said. “Not only bringing in Mike McDaniel but a supporting cast for Tua.”
Polian put it this way: “The best deal is the deal you don’t make. They stayed with Tua in the face of public criticism. It takes courage as a GM to do that. And his hiring of McDaniel was terrific.” The Dolphins, of course, ultimately opted not to bid for Deshaun Watson earlier this year.
Grier and McDaniel are easy to get along with, and the tension that existed between Grier and Brian Flores doesn’t exist with Grier and McDaniel.
Grier keeps McDaniel aware of everything and solicits his input.
“The biggest and most important thing is that we respect, regard, trust and rely on each other,” McDaniel said last week. “It’s assumed that everything we do that we’re on the same page. If we’re not, we have this brilliant formula of just talking. I think we both view that as our responsibility, knowing that in a healthy organization, the people that are put in positions of authority have to be on the same page.
“Chris views a team the same way I do. He knows... we only go as far as we take each other. So with regard to every potential free agent in the offseason, he leads a process that I firmly co-sign and I see the exact same way, where he has the scouts present the available players and you don’t skirt anyone. The best thing about our relationship is I don’t think I’ve ever heard him nor have I said, ‘Well, I decided this.’”
And this must be said, too: Owner Stephen Ross made the right move keeping Grier over Flores, considering that McDaniel has extracted far more from Tagovailoa than Flores could.
The Dolphins generally have kept three running backs active for games this season. They have one running back on the practice squad, La’Mical Perine.
Only one other player on the 53-man roster besides Mostert has an injury designation: backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who is questionable after being limited all week with a knee injury. Skylar Thompson would back up Tagovailoa if Bridgewater cannot play.
Everyone else on the 53-man roster is set to play on Sunday.