‘When He Started to Fall, That Changed Everything’
At 7:47 p.m. Thursday, just minutes before the NFL draft was about to begin, a video posted to Twitter dramatically changed the order of the first round.
By now, the entire sports world knows the story: Laremy Tunsil’s Twitter account was hacked by somebody who posted a video of the former Ole Miss left tackle using a gas mask to smoke a substance out of a bong. Few things that happen in real-time can impact the order of the NFL draft, an event driven by years of scouting and weeks of finalizing draft boards. But suddenly, Tunsil—who at the time of the NFL combine in February was the presumed No. 1 overall pick—was dropping like a hot potato.
The Miami Dolphins went on the clock at 9:38 p.m. with pick No. 13. That meant they’d had less than two hours to decide how much a bizarre video was going to impact how they viewed one of the best on-field prospects in this year’s draft. The Dolphins’ verdict: Not at all. They happily ended Tunsil’s draft night fall.
How did they arrive on such a bold decision? The MMQB asked Mike Tannenbaum, Miami’s executive vice president of football operations, to explain what took place in the Dolphins’ draft room during those critical two hours.
First of all, Tunsil was one of a few players at the very top of the Dolphins draft board entering the night. They did not expect him to be available anywhere near No. 13. And had it not been for the video he almost certainly would not have been. After the two trades at the top of the draft for quarterbacks—Los Angeles trading into Tennessee’s No. 1 spot to draft Jared Goff, and Philadelphia jumping up to No. 2 for Carson Wentz—Tunsil was no longer expected to be the No. 1 pick. But with a few tackle-needy teams in the top 10, he wasn’t expected to last long.
Down in Davie, Fla., Dolphins staffers heard about the mysterious video as the draft began, but Tannenbaum didn’t watch it right away. Goff and Wentz went No. 1 and 2, as expected. Joey Bosa at No. 3 was a bit of a surprise, but only because the Chargers keep their draft philosophy close to the vest. There were pre-draft reports of Miami calling around about trading up for running back Ezekiel Elliott, after losing Lamar Miller in free agency, but there was no chance Miami was going to try to shoot up in front of the Cowboys at No. 4. Elliott, as some had forecast, indeed went to Dallas. The Jaguars were thrilled that Jalen Ramsey, the top overall player on many teams’ boards, was still available at No. 5.
The next pick is when things started to get really interesting. The Ravens, at No. 6 overall, selected an offensive tackle. But they picked Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley, passing on Tunsil. By then, the TV broadcast playing in the draft room was focused on the impact of the bong video, and Dolphins player personnel director Joe Schoen had pulled it up on his phone for Tannenbaum and GM Chris Grier, who were sitting next to each other, to watch.
“After picks No. 4 and 5, that’s when it started to get real traction,” Tannenbaum said. “Bosa, Elliott and Ramsey went, and we figured Tunsil would be next in that group. When he wasn’t, we started saying, ‘Whoa, what is going on here?’ When he started to fall, that changed everything.”
At pick No. 8, when the Titans jumped up seven slots in a trade with the Browns to take Michigan State tackle Jack Conklin, the Dolphins realized Tunsil might slide to them. The Titans needed another bookend tackle to protect Marcus Mariota, which is what fueled speculation earlier this offseason that Tunsil would be the No. 1 pick, before Tennessee traded out of that spot. Titans GM Jon Robinson said later that they were not scrambling on draft night when Tunsil’s video came out, and that may very well have been because the Titans had moved off of Tunsil even before the video. Regardless, their selection set the Dolphins in motion.
“After Tennessee traded up and took Conklin,” Tannenbaum said, “that’s when we said, ‘We’ve really gotta talk about this. If he gets to us, we’ve got to make a decision there.’ ”
All the top decision-makers were in the Dolphins’ draft room: Tannenbaum, Grier, owner Stephen Ross, head coach Adam Gase, team president Tom Garfinkel and vice chairmen Jorge Perez and Matt Higgins. Schoen and national college scout Adam Engroff were also present. After the Titans passed on Tunsil, they summoned into the room Matt Winston, the area scout who covers Ole Miss (and brother of NFL players union president Eric Winston).
No one had any questions about Tunsil’s athletic ability. Even before the social media video came out, though, he had some off-the-field question marks. He was suspended seven games last season for receiving impermissible benefits, and Ole Miss teammate Robert Nkemdiche said at the combine that Tunsil was with him when Nkemdiche fell out a hotel window. The week of the draft, Tunsil's stepfather sued him for assault after the two filed mutual domestic violence charges last summer, for an incident in which Tunsil said he was defending his mother.
All along, Miami was confident enough in its evaluation of Tunsil to keep him near the very top of its draft board. That didn’t change with this video. Winston—who had done the boots-on-the-ground research on Tunsil, dating back to his years as a top recruit at Columbia High in Lake City, Fla.—vouched for him in front of the top decision-makers in the draft room.
“Matt felt good about the player,” Tannenbaum says. “His passion for football; his good work ethic. He made some mistakes at Ole Miss, but the bottom line is he is a very good player, very talented and a good person. Matt is a good scout, and when he signs off on a player, I know that’s based on his thorough research.”
In this year’s draft, in fact, four of the top five players the Dolphins drafted were in Winston’s area: Tunsil, Baylor CB Xavien Howard (second round), Alabama RB Kenyan Drake (third round) and Texas Tech WR Jakeem Grant (sixth round). But no decision was bigger than the one Miami made on Tunsil.
“The optics were far from perfect, but we kept it in the context of a good kid who loves football.”
Jimmy Sexton, Tunsil’s agent, called the Dolphins’ draft room sometime between the ninth and 10th picks. He told them the video was two years old. “That made us feel better, obviously,” Tannenbaum said. That timeline helps for a big reason: The NFL’s policy and program for Substances of Abuse states that behavior up to two seasons before a prospect enters the league can be considered for his entry into the drug program, so Tunsil would probably be clear if the video was old. Even if he were entered into Phase 1 of the program, that does not mean he’d face a fine or discipline. On draft night the Dolphins at least were confident Tunsil would not miss time as a result of the video, and they also knew that he had not failed drug tests in college or at the NFL combine.
“We were comfortable with his eligibility,” Tannenbaum said. “Those thoughts went through our mind, but there was no reason to think he wouldn’t be eligible.”
When the Giants, who also were in the offensive line market, passed on Tunsil at No. 10, the Dolphins knew he was probably going to be there for the taking. They were making their final decision around this time. Ross was sitting right next to Tannenbaum, along with Grier and Gase. The final decision was up to the four of them to make. “Anybody have a problem doing this?” Ross asked.
“Between the four of us,” Tannenbaum said, “it was quick and unanimous.”
He added: “It was an incredibly easy decision. We were OK with the player, because we knew he had made a mistake. The optics were far from perfect, but we kept it in the context of a good kid who loves football and is a good person. We just felt like it was too good an opportunity to pass up.”
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During the Nos. 11 and 12 slots, the Dolphins got a couple calls from teams looking to trade up for other players. But their decision was already made. They were staying put to take Tunsil. At one point, Gase joked later, he told Tannenbaum, "just turn in the card already.” Whether Tunsil slots in at guard or tackle for the Dolphins, he will be a big upgrade on the line for Gase’s offense.
Grier was the one who phoned Tunsil, who was waiting in the green room in Chicago hoping the Dolphins would break his fall. Grier's message: Let’s have a fresh start and move forward together. The drama wasn’t over yet. While Tunsil was on his way to his press duties, the hacker struck again, posting text message screen shots to Tunsil's Instagram account that implied he’d taken money from an Ole Miss staffer in violation of NCAA rules. “We didn’t focus much on that, to be candid,” Tannenbaum said. Translation: Not gonna affect him in the NFL.
This was a bigtime risk-reward pick. The Dolphins are counting on reaping a big reward on their offensive line. The question of Round 1, though, was why were they willing to take a risk that none of the 12 teams picking in front of them would take?
“I can’t answer that,” Tannenbaum said. “I can’t put myself in their shoes. I can just say we were comfortable, and I’m just really glad it happened.”
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