On Friday, Tom Pelissero reported that the Minnesota Vikings narrowed their general manager search to Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Ryan Poles. Barring a change of heart, one of those two men will shepherd the Vikings into the future. After interviewing eight candidates over the course of the week, the Vikings appear to be close to a decision.
Looking at those eight candidates, we can see a bit of a trend. All of those people have a reputation as quality collaborators, and they’re all relatively young. This tracks with Mark Wilf’s comments asking for a fresh mind who can work well with others. But beyond that, they all had varying backgrounds. Poles came up as a scout for the Kansas City Chiefs for over a decade. Adofo-Mensah spent more of his career on Wall Street than in the NFL but has quickly risen through the ranks in multiple organizations.
So, how do we suss out which one is better? We can’t really know how the Vikings are reaching their conclusion, and it’s a difficult decision. Fans are entirely divided, as depicted below. We can’t really know exactly who was responsible for what in their respective war rooms. Poles was almost certainly in the room when the Chiefs traded up for Patrick Mahomes. Adofo-Mensah probably had a lot to do with the rebuild that has revitalized the Browns over the last couple of years. But what were they actually responsible for?
We can’t really know the answer unless we are in the room with them. We can’t know if Poles actually dissented against the Mahomes pick or if he was the loudest voice in favor. Maybe Adofo-Mensah had a pet project in the draft that wouldn’t have worked out. Instead of evaluating these GM’s résumés in this way, let’s try to mimic the Vikings’ process. The Vikings are concerned with the overall philosophy and the skill set of those GMs, not a win-loss record of how often their team did something right.
With that in mind, let’s try to figure out the philosophies of these two GMs. What you, dear reader, decide you want more is up to you, but at least I can arm you with the intel you need to make the decision.
Adofo-Mensah worked as a commodities broker before his time in football. He has an economics degree from Princeton. You might already have a sense of the kind of decision-making philosophies Adofo-Mensah favors. For those who aren’t well-versed in economics, understand that it centers around trends and overall patterns rather than singular anecdotes. If one person buys a box of strawberries for $3.99, that’s not relevant to economics. If 10 million people do, it is.
Economics is a field that measures trends and tendencies to recommend policy. That might sound very similar to your idea of football analytics, and it’s why so many people with economics backgrounds have made their way into football over recent years. The two fields have a compatible logic. If the evidence shows that one policy is correct 60% of the time and another is correct 40%, the first policy is a better move (to massively oversimplify).
Adofo-Mensah’s Wall Street background plays even further into this. What is NFL roster-building but a traders’ market where you buy and sell commodities? Spending a draft pick on a player is not unlike spending liquid capital on a tradeable commodity. Trade that player back, and it’s a sell. Buy low, sell high, reap profits. That’s the Wall Street way, and Cleveland’s behavior in recent years matches that value-based philosophy.
All of this simply lays the foundation for the football chapter of Adofo-Mensah’s career. He often talks about how that background influences his decision-making. Adofo-Mensah has been a football fan since he was three years old, dreaming of involving himself in the sport one day. It wasn’t until 2013 that he actually broke his way into football as manager of research and development for the San Francisco 49ers.
He worked in that nebulous R&D role for the 49ers for seven years before a chance elevator encounter blossomed into a friendship with Browns GM Andrew Berry. Then the Browns, who have a penchant for stacking their front office with Ivy Leaguers, snapped up another one. That role is somewhat nebulous, but it’s something of a strategy manager. While scouts are responsible for evaluating a player’s skills, Adofo-Mensah’s job was to turn that set of scouting reports into an actionable plan. He wasn’t selecting this player or that one, nor was he drafting up contracts. Rather, he was trying to find edges. By the way, if that sounds fun, the 49ers are hiring an intern in that department.
Analytics plays a prominent role in that sort of analysis. Adofo-Mensah has become known as somewhat of “the analytics candidate.” While he certainly has a favorable view of what we typically call analytics, it’s a bit reductive. To Adofo-Mensah, analytics just provide evidence. His whole job has been to interpret that evidence, but he also considers a wide range of factors.
What makes Adofo-Mensah an exciting candidate is this pragmatic, quantifiable approach to the game. Gone would be the days of gut feelings and old-school character judgments. Adofo-Mensah would not live in fear of possibly getting punished for taking a risk. Instead, he’d evaluate that risk and the costs and benefits of taking it. Much like placing some capital into a volatile stock, there’s a way to harness that volatility and turn a profit.
If Adofo-Mensah is the outside-the-box candidate, Poles exists firmly inside it. Poles has been with one organization for his entire football front-office career: the Kansas City Chiefs. Since 2009, Poles has seen three different full-fledged rebuilds in Kansas City. He joined near the end of Scott Pioli’s tenure, then watched John Dorsey come and go. Finally, the Chiefs became champions and an elite contender in the Brett Veach era.
Before his time with the Chiefs, Poles was an offensive lineman at Boston College, where he blocked for Matt Ryan. Then he worked for BC in recruiting for a couple of years. That experience made offensive line something of a specialty for him as he gained experience in Kansas City. We can guess that Poles had something to do, then, with the Chiefs’ offensive line decisions throughout his tenure. He worked as a college scouting coordinator when KC correctly selected Eric Fisher over Luke Joeckel.
The Fisher pick looked very bad for many years, but the Chiefs stuck by it. Under Veach, Kansas City has been a fairly patient organization, except for one particularly aggressive move. Poles talks about risk in this interview (check his shirt out, by the way). He wants to pick his spot when it comes to risk. The Chiefs picked a spot to get bold in drafting Mahomes, and they played a patient game everywhere else. That seems to be Poles’ philosophy to Minnesota if he got the job.
In 2017, various front-office openings picked the Chiefs clean. That made the opening that Ryan Poles took, which placed him in the highest cabal of Brett Veach’s Chiefs. Over that time, Kansas City built a contender, primarily through the draft. In 2021, 13 of the 22 Chiefs starters came through the draft. Many more are playing on multi-year free-agent contracts. KC wants to build a sustainable contender.
That philosophy should be exciting for a franchise whose best moments have come in fleeting, lightning-in-a-bottle moments that fell apart instantly. Rick Spielman’s Vikings were adept at keeping their homegrown talent in the building, and Poles also seems to value that. He would want to build through responsible, patient drafting and only take significant risks in crucial scenarios.
For Kansas City, one of those scenarios was their 2021 offensive line turnaround. After the Super Bowl debacle that kept the Chiefs to nine points, KC set out to rebuild that unit. They drafted two linemen (Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith), signed two (Austin Blythe and Joe Thuney), and traded for Orlando Brown, Jr. This is the strongest contrast between Rick Spielman and Ryan Poles. Spielman’s answer to the offensive line problem showed no urgency. Poles seems more willing to abandon patience when appropriate.
The differences between these two candidates are where we can make some headway. Adofo-Mensah seems to embrace risk as just another cost with a probability multiplier. Poles would avoid risk, except in particular circumstances. Poles has a deeply ingrained football background, while Adofo-Mensah comes in as a relative outsider.
Do you want the Vikings to be a value-based team constantly looking for the next innovative edge? Or do you want them to be a patient, stable organization that builds a juggernaut by improving steadily year after year? Both sound great, and both can absolutely flame out. Adofo-Mensah’s search for an edge might leave the Vikings lacking holistic synergy. Poles’ more conservative approach could watch the league pass it by.
Adofo-Mensah won’t turn the Vikings into the Browns, and Ryan Poles won’t turn the Vikings into the Chiefs. But little aspects of each of their philosophies shine through. Depending on what is important to you as a fan, you may choose one or the other. The Vikings will go through the same struggle this week.