As the Dolphins begin their rebuilding program, there’s no better authority on the process than Jimmy Johnson, who traded Herschel Walker for a treasure trove of draft picks and built a 1-15 Dallas Cowboys team into a multi-time Super Bowl champion.
In a phone conversation this week, Johnson offered a half dozen helpful tips as the Dolphins embark on this process:
▪ Don’t necessarily succumb to the temptation to draft 5-10 Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray.
“Kyler Murray is the kind of player who can take you to the playoffs or can be hurt his second game,” Johnson said. “He is exciting and a great college player, but he is undersized and a big part of his game is mobility and mobile quarterbacks in the NFL don’t last very long. But he is great player and exciting. It would be a tough call for me for the long haul. I would be hesitant.”
▪ Pick Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa over Oregon’s Justin Herbert if you have the choice of those two quarterbacks high in the 2020 draft, assuming the quarterback need isn’t filled in the 2019 draft.
“Tua looks big time to me,” Johnson said. “Herbert I’m not nearly as excited about as I am with Tua.”
Nevertheless, Johnson wouldn’t automatically delay the quarterback decision a year if there’s someone really, really good available in this April’s draft.
“It depends on who is available,” Johnson said. “If you think they can win for you, [take one]. Putting it off a year is one thing — I don’t know if that’s the way to go if the right guy is there.”
▪ Be open to trading down for extra picks, but don’t bypass a player you love.
“I traded for extra picks only when there wasn’t a player there I desperately wanted,” he said. “My whole philosophy was there was a group of players I wanted but I wanted to take them at the right spot. And if the pick was too high for a player I wanted, I would trade down and get extra picks. But if there was a player there I wanted, I was going to take him.
“You don’t go into it thinking I’m going to trade down to get more picks. That’s foolish to bypass a great player just because you’re building for the future. If a great player is not there, you move down.”
▪ Get your salary cap situation fixed at the start of this process.
“They’ve got to get the cap in shape,” Johnson said. “We were so far over the cap when I first went to the Dolphins that I couldn’t keep quality players. I couldn’t keep Troy Vincent and Bryan Cox and Irving Fryar. I would love to have kept them but we were so far over the cap I couldn’t do it. I had to get the cap in good shape before we started building something. We started six or seven rookies. We were able to win eight games doing it that way. We were in playoffs from then on.”
▪ Delay paying good money for quality veteran free agents until you’re further along in this process, perhaps in a year or two.
“You’ve got to get some quality players and don’t overpay for them,” he said. “The Dolphins have overpaid for some very good players but not great players. You don’t overpay.”
▪ Prioritize certain positions.
“Starting quarterback, backup quarterback and pass rushers,” Johnson said.
He agrees that it’s helpful to have defensive tackles who can rush the quarterback in today’s game but said “you can get away” without that if you can puss rush from other positions.
What about offensive tackles? He places them a bit lower on his priority list, saying “that depends on the quarterback” because some quarterbacks with escapability and good pocket presence and instincts can thrive even without an elite offensive line.
Johnson — who went from 1-15 in his first year in Dallas to 7-9, 11-5 and then two Super Bowl winning seasons in years four and five — said he didn’t have enough information to give an opinion on whether the Dolphins should try to extend their best players — potential spring 2020 free agents Laremy Tunsil and Xavien Howard — or trade them for draft picks. The Dolphins are expected to make attempts to keep both, though Howard could be put in play if the sides cannot agree on money.
Johnson said “I don’t like tanking” as a general approach and that there’s a distinction between rebuilding and trying to be bad the first year in order to secure a high pick. “I never wanted to be bad — I just wanted to get the cap in good shape.”
But Johnson understands what the Dolphins are doing.
“The fallacy in the NFL is every team says I am one or two players away,” he said.
The Dolphins finally realize they’re not.