Featured Posts | Vikings

Zulgad: Playing it smart: Vikings’ new GM continues local trend of turning toward analytics


The move toward analytics playing a significant role in baseball had started long before the Twins joined the party by hiring Derek Falvey in October 2016. Falvey, only 32 at the time, was known more for his smarts than his scouting ability, having gotten a degree in economics from Trinity, the second oldest college in Connecticut.

Falvey found his brain power matched, or exceeded, this summer when the Wolves put 40-year-old Sachin Gupta in charge of their basketball operation after firing Gersson Rosas. Gupta, who created the “NBA Trade Machine” in 2006 for ESPN, is able to hang degrees from MIT (computer science and electrical engineering) and Stanford Graduate School of Business (an MBA) on his office wall.

All of this must have made the Vikings concerned they would be in trouble if a front office game of Jeopardy ever broke out. That issue was fixed on Thursday as reports circulated that 40-year-old Kwesi Adofo-Mensah had been hired to replace Rick Spielman as general manager.

If you believe that a background in scouting, and a gut feeling on a player, is how to build a successful football franchise, we suggest you stop reading. If you are open to what should be considered one of the most interesting hires made by an NFL team from both a risk and reward standpoint, keep going.

Adofo-Mensah and Spielman will have held the same titles with the Vikings, but that’s where the similarities end. While the 59-year-old Spielman is a football-lifer, Adofo-Mensah didn’t even start working in the sport until 2013.

The San Francisco 49ers hired him as their director of football research and development after he earned a master’s in economics from Stanford. Adofo-Mensah had first graduated from Princeton with a degree in economics — he played basketball for the Tigers — and then went to work as a commodities trader (trading energy derivatives) and portfolio manager on Wall Street.

Four years after joining the 49ers, Adofo-Mensah was in charge of the department he joined before new Browns general manager Andrew Berry hired him as vice president of football operations in 2020. The move did not come as a surprise, given the Browns (unsuccessfully) tried to win with analytics in 2016 when Sashi Brown ran the team and then returned to that formula (with far more success) under Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski. An ESPN.com survey of NFL analytical staffers last October voted the Browns the league’s most analytically advanced franchise.

Adofo-Mensah’s first opportunity to interview for a GM job came last year with the Carolina Panthers. It was clear he was going to get an opportunity to run his own team and that will be in Minnesota. He will receive a four-year, $12 million contract, according to NFL Network.

How will it go? At this point, it’s difficult to even guess. The one thing that is certain is that the 2022 Vikings won’t be anything like what Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer oversaw during a disappointing 2021. That goes far beyond the collaboration and inclusion that owner Mark Wilf talked about being so important when this process started.

“I would say that my whole life, and not just my professional life, I’ve been really passionate about decision making under uncertainty,” Adofo-Mensah said when interviewed while still with the Browns. “I think my commodities trading background is a reflection of that. I think my graduate school in economics is a reflection of that. I think playing basketball is a reflection of that. I think what draws people to that from an academic environment is that you get a chance to apply some of these academic principles, that things that happen kind of subconsciously on the court, or on the field. …

“In a sense some people see that as very different, but I don’t see it very different in my ability to kind of pull information to make a bet on the direction of the oil market versus pulling information to making a bet on the direction of an NFL player. I think those are similar processes. Obviously, they are different skill sets and different information sources. I kind of came into San Francisco … and just learned from those guys and learned the methodology that they used. But ultimately you are making decisions under uncertainty and there are certain things that carry over across those fields.”

In other words, the Vikings have traded in their 1995 game plan for an updated model. It’s likely that Zimmer’s run-first mentality will be replaced with a new approach. Justin Jefferson, the Vikings’ star wide receiver, should be very excited about how the yet-to-be hired coaching staff will use him. Veterans making too much money — I’m looking at you Kirk Cousins, as well as guys like Adam Thielen and Harrison Smith — are likely to find the loyalty that Spielman showed is long gone.

While Adofo-Mensah is certain to embrace the Wilfs’ desire for collaboration and inclusion, he also is going to need to make some unpopular decisions and the only way to build the Vikings into a championship contender is to embrace the future and not be tied to the past.

There also would have been numerous changes — both in the football operations and on the field — if Chiefs executive Ryan Poles had gotten the Vikings job instead of becoming the Bears’ GM. Poles is more of a traditional hire, who certainly uses analytics but isn’t known as an expert in that area. Spielman used analytics, too, but Adofo-Mensah takes this to another level — one that includes many unknowns and will feature a series of very interesting decisions.

The most important of those will be landing on the right head coach and a long-term solution at quarterback. If Adofo-Mensah can hit on both of those, Vikings fans won’t have to look at his degrees to consider him a genius.