Vikings

The Vikings Are Embracing A New Mentality If They Hire Kwesi Adofo-Mensah

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Now that Ryan Poles has accepted the Chicago Bears’ offer to be their new general manager, the die is all but cast. The Minnesota Vikings are almost assured to hire Kwesi Adofo-Mensah as their new GM as of this writing. Adofo-Mensah has been Cleveland Browns GM Andrew Berry’s right-hand man for a little while. Before that, he was part of the San Francisco 49ers’ and Cleveland’s Research & Development team. That’s what they call their analytics staff, which is responsible for converting large sets of data (such as a class of scouting reports) and converting it into strategy.

Before football, Adofo-Mensah worked as a commodities broker on Wall Street. He has comparatively little experience against the other general manager candidates. He has an unorthodox view of the sport. Adofo-Mensah has been a fan of football since he was three years old, but he is very green as a decision-maker. That’s exactly what the Wilfs were looking for.

The Vikings’ original general manager shortlist didn’t include anyone over 42. Their head coaching list is also peppered with young, fresh minds. Minnesota is embracing a new approach to the game. Gone are the days of gut feelings and snap character judgments. Instead, the Vikings hired the first analytics staffer as general manager in NFL history.

Economics

You may have heard by now that Kwesi Adofo-Mensah graduated from Princeton with a degree in economics in 2003. Instead of saying “Princeton equals smart” and moving on, let’s look deeper into the relationship between football and economics. There is a lot of precedent for economics-focused staff in the NFL. Even the great Bill Belichick has an economics degree. Plenty of staffers around the league come from that world. Adofo-Mensah is not the first, nor will he be the last.

Economics, as a field, relies a lot on market trends. Are people buying more cars or fewer cars this year? Then it studies fiscal policy that would affect those trends. If there aren’t enough people buying cars, prices might lower. If prices lower and there are layoffs, unemployment might go up. And if unemployment is up, perhaps unemployment-focused fiscal policy is in order.

That train of thought might feel familiar to you if you closely study positional value. For example, interior offensive linemen have gotten more expensive over the last two years (see the Joe Thuney contract). Because defensive linemen have made more money in the pros, most big, strong athletes want to be defensive linemen as kids and choose that path. That created a scarcity of offensive linemen. That scarcity led to the prominence of zone blocking, which uses smaller, faster offensive linemen who don’t have defensive-line body types. And that prominence led teams to highly value zone-blocking linemen.

Understanding that process is one thing, but teams also have to try and leverage it. For example, there may be an offensive lineman out there who isn’t fast enough to play in a zone-blocking scheme but can pass protect well. There might be an inefficiency there to exploit — since all the zone blocking teams can’t use him, there will be fewer suitors. Less competition will drive the price down. That sets up a good pass protector for cheap, the Holy Grail that Rick Spielman could never find.

Understanding those patterns of cause and effect will come naturally to someone with a background in economics. When you train your brain to think in terms of supply, demand, price, cost, and benefit, it can help you make impartial decisions about football. If nothing else, it’s a different approach for a franchise that sorely needs a shot in the arm.

Wall Street

After graduating from Princeton, Adofo-Mensah took on a job as a day trader. He played basketball in college, so his boss was worried when he showed up to his trading desk. He didn’t want to coach “the talented guy.” Adofo-Mensah clarified that he had no such ego.“I think that will always shape who I am. I think I live in these dual realities of the person with ability and intelligence, but also the person who has something to prove every day that he wakes up.”

Life as a commodities trader is all about making bets. It’s about existing in a world of uncertainty. There’s no sure bet on Wall Street, and if there is, it’s not very profitable. The way to profit is to responsibly make risky decisions. It’s not just about having the courage to bet on something that has a chance to burn you. It’s about knowing how to profit anyways. For day traders, that means diversifying your investments across multiple commodities. It means trying to buy assets at their lowest and sell them at their highest. More than anything, it means an innate understanding that losses are a natural byproduct of a process that generates wins.

Belichick might provide a preview of the type of thought process the Vikings will adopt. Take Jamie Collins, whom the New England Patriots traded away at the peak of his abilities for a third-round pick. He was at the end of his contract, and Cleveland extended him. Collins played two years there, only to return to New England on the cheap. They essentially traded two years of Collins for a third-round pick and let someone else eat the big cap hit. They sold high, then bought back in on the low end.

After that, Collins signed a one-year deal with the Patriots, played that single year, and then signed a big deal with the Detroit Lions that netted New England another compensatory pick. The Patriots could manage this aggressively partly because they had Tom Brady to paper over problems, but the logic is sound all the same. The year after that debacle, the Browns brought Kwesi Adofo-Mensah in to help them devise strategy. But first, he worked for the 49ers.

In The NFL

Adofo-Mensah spent a lot of time doing R&D and analytics for the San Francisco 49ers. During that time, he learned how to apply his talent for making decisions about uncertain problems to football. He saw the Niners go to three consecutive NFC Championships, fall apart thanks to interpersonal bickering, and rebuild.

In 2017, the 49ers traded for Jimmy Garoppolo in a lost season. In 2018, Garoppolo got injured. The 49ers stayed the course, ran back a 4-12 team, and went to the Super Bowl. From this, Adofo-Mensah learned how to be resilient as a decision-maker. “You have to have people in the building who are not going to blink,” he said, “know what that looks like and have a shared vision.” It’s not as easy to get lured off course when you know what it’s supposed to look like and have confidence in that vision.

According to a survey of analytics staffers across the league, San Francisco is arguably a top-five most analytically inclined organization. It makes sense that they would take the leap in bringing non-football people to offer a fresh perspective. Adofo-Mensah is proud of that perspective, even though it means he has less conventional experience. “I came up unconventionally,” he said, “but I think my background was a positive because I did not have any preconceived notions or biases.”

That might be exactly what the Vikings need. Gone would be the old ways of doing things the way they have been done for years out of a sense of tradition. Instead of laying the house down on your evaluations, hedge your bets. Play around the possibility that you get a pick wrong instead of just resolving to get as much right as you can. Every scouting department is trying to get as much right as they can anyways.

After that Super Bowl run, Adofo-Mensah and Browns GM Andrew Berry grew close. Eventually, Berry made Adofo-Mensah his right-hand man. When he joined, he said, “I ask ‘why’ a lot. You will find that out about me.” He talked about his experience learning from talent evaluators in San Francisco, which continued in Cleveland. Now, as (probable) Vikings general manager, we can see how Adofo-Mensah’s philosophy applies to full control of a team.

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