Wednesday marks five years to the day when the Dolphins drafted the offensive tackle with the No. 13 overall pick, ending his wild draft-day fall and capping one of the most memorable moments in draft history.
“The big difference between today and five years ago is people being a lot more open about marijuana,” said one person with knowledge of the Dolphins’ draft in 2016. “If that happened today, he definitely wouldn’t have dropped that far. People were shocked to see the image. Teams were scrambling. We were surprised to see it coming out just before the draft, but we felt very comfortable taking him.”
The Dolphins, who bet on Tunsil’s character, were the biggest beneficiary of what proved to be an overreaction.
It worked out great for the Dolphins, who turned Tunsil into an eye-opening draft haul that now includes three first-round picks, an early second-rounder, a third-rounder and a fourth-rounder in a period that started last year and continues through the 2023 draft.
On the eve of the 2021 NFL draft (8 p.m. ET Thursday, ABC/ESPN and ESPN App), only the Jacksonville Jaguars can match the Dolphins’ four selections among the top-50 picks. Miami holds picks No. 6, 18, 36 and 50, with more coming in 2022 and 2023.
ESPN spoke with multiple people who have connections and information tied to the Dolphins’ decision to draft Tunsil in 2016. They provided behind-the-scenes details that paint a picture of how Tunsil landed in Miami and how the ripples of that decision have impacted the Dolphins five years later.
Unequivocally yes on taking Tunsil
There was zero hesitation once the draft had started and Tunsil began to fall. The Dolphins’ top four personnel decision-makers — owner Stephen Ross, general manager Chris Grier, executive vice president of football operations Mike Tannenbaum and coach Adam Gase — conducted an internal poll on whether they would vote to draft Tunsil.
The answer was four yes votes — a unanimous decision.
Tunsil was projected as the draft’s top offensive tackle and was expected to be drafted among the first six picks. The Baltimore Ravens would have drafted Tunsil at No. 6 if not for the gas mask video that leaked on his social media minutes before the draft began, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
That video, which the Dolphins concluded was leaked because of a dispute with family members who aired his private life at the worst time, led Tunsil to fall to them at No. 13. Tunsil was the No. 2 player on the Dolphins’ draft board.
“It was very unexpected that he fell in our range. We weren’t preparing for him to be a possible option,” said one source with knowledge of the decision-making process. “Our attention was piqued when the Ravens took Ronnie Stanley but it wasn’t until the Tennessee Titans drafted Jack Conklin at No. 8 that we started thinking it was possible. When the Giants passed on him at No. 10, it ramped up even more.”
Tunsil’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, called the Dolphins’ draft room right before pick No. 10 telling them the leaked video was two years old. That gave Miami comfort Tunsil wouldn’t be suspended under the NFL’s substance abuse policy should he end up on the Dolphins’ roster for the 2016 season.
Though they didn’t expect him to be available, the Dolphins had done significant homework on Tunsil prior to draft day. Area scout Matt Winston had made multiple trips to Ole Miss, drawing from his contacts there as well as Tunsil’s high school contacts to conclude in his report that Tunsil was a good kid who had a strong work ethic and loved football, but had also made some mistakes while growing up.
The Dolphins also met with Tunsil at the 2016 NFL combine, Miami coaches attended his pro day at Ole Miss and involved director of player engagement Kaleb Thornhill in the pre-draft process.
“It’s not a question of this guy changing overnight,” Ross said in 2016 after the team drafted Tunsil. “The work that we’ve done on him, the people we’ve talked to, meeting the kid, you know that this is a good kid. It’s going to be a great choice.”
When the pick was made, the Dolphins prepared for the media storm, but they had little doubt they had made the right decision.
‘It’s transformed the organization’
The Dolphins last month used the No. 3 pick they received from the Texans to make two pre-draft trades that then yielded more draft capital for Miami. Following those trades, Tunsil reposted a picture on Instagram of his head superimposed on the Dan Marino statue in front of Hard Rock Stadium. It was a hilarious reference to the fact Tunsil’s legacy in Miami will be the large number of core players the Dolphins will draft from picks acquired in his trade to Houston.
Tunsil was unhappy when the trade was made in August 2019, but he told Grier “I would trade me for that” once he saw the draft capital on the general manager’s office board. Tunsil is clearly able to laugh about the trade now, and that picture he reposted drew some laughs as it made its way around Dolphins’ headquarters, too.
The Dolphins did not want to trade Tunsil. But two factors changed their mind: They were in rebuild mode, so postseason contention was realistically multiple years away, and the Texans kept increasing their offer to what became a quarterback-quality ransom. The value of the deal tested Grier’s philosophy that he would rather have three good players than one great player.
“It’s transformed the organization,” one high-ranking league source said.
Grier will have a chance at six good players from the Tunsil trade with cornerback Noah Igbinoghene, guard Solomon Kindley, the No. 6 and No. 36 picks in the 2021 draft, a 2022 third-round pick via the 49ers and a 2023 first-round pick via the 49ers as the full return.
Miami is set up over the next couple of years to complete its transition from rebuilding to long-term contender, but the last step is the most important one: picking the right players.
The Dolphins have moved past the Tunsil pick and his trade, but five years later, they know he’s a big part of the reason they will be on the clock so frequently early in this draft.