Minnesota Vikings: Kwesi Adofo-Mensah explains unique roster approach – USA TODAY

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EAGAN, Minn. — Kwesi Adofo-Mensah climbs the steps toward a balcony adjacent to the Vikings’ sprawling practice fields, entering the doorway into his glass-paned office. This is headquarters for the 40-year-old general manager to conduct business, but he doesn’t flock to his desk. The lanky former Princeton basketball player instead takes a seat at the round conference table, ready to converse.

Another organized team activity practice has just wrapped. The Vikings spent the afternoon drilling spread concepts and tempo variance, head coach Kevin O’Connell eager to pressure defenses with misdirection and diverse personnel groupings. Adofo-Mensah is in the action and not as he flanks the sideline inches from two-minute and red-zone work. He observes quietly, a football spinning between his hands.

This clear-skied, sunny May afternoon offers a stark reminder of how much has changed since the Vikings’ frigid season ended. Minnesota has fronted a new head coach, general manager and offensive system since their 8-9 campaign, the third time in four years the team fell short of the playoffs. And yet, the Vikings’ shift hasn’t resembled several NFL teams’ recent methodology of change. Despite the NFL’s offseason of seismic quarterback movement, Kirk Cousins remains passer-in-chief. Adofo-Mensah wonders if he made the right decision.

“I’ll be frank,” he told USA TODAY Sports during a sit-down at his office conference table. “The one asset where you get nervous about not burning it down is quarterback.”  

He aims not to take a shot at a quarterback coming off a 4,221-yard, 33-touchdown-to-seven-interception season and believes, indeed, that he has “a good quarterback.” But “we don’t have Tom Brady,” Adofo-Mensah acknowledges, and “we don’t have Pat(rick) Mahomes,” which requires him to ask: Is the Vikings quarterback perennially sufficient? 

“(The Super Bowl) is more likely to win if you have that quarterback,” Adofo-Mensah said. “It’s very unlikely to have that quarterback.”

If this sounds like the beginning of a logic problem, it’s because the quantitatively minded Adofo-Mensah indeed attacks his new role from probabilistic frameworks. The former Wall Street commodities trader and Stanford economics master’s graduate initially built his NFL reputation on keen decision-making and empirical analysis. When the Vikings interviewed GM candidates in January, ownership was drawn to his tireless commitment to covering his blind spots, his tenets of “consensus building and the pursuit of information.” A team that just tied the NFL record with 14 one-score games craved the decisive edge.

Adofo-Mensah is no rookie in professional football. But he believes his quantitative lens distinguishes him from his peers.

“On the math side, I hope it’s not going to sound arrogant, but I speak that better than any other GM,” Adofo-Mensah said. “I don’t know that I speak (football) better than them, but my worst thing is probably better than their worst thing. You know what I mean? So I think my ability to communicate in really every room in the football building makes me unique.

“Now still: You’ve got to build a football team.”

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Working the numbers

Adofo-Mensah was pursuing his doctorate in economics at Stanford before he pivoted to join the 49ers football research and development department in 2013. For the next six years, first as manager and then director, he shaped analyses of performance and strategy, as well as advising the club’s decision tree on player acquisition and development. The 49ers skyrocketed from a 4-12 campaign in 2018 to a 13-3 finish and Super Bowl berth. Adofo-Mensah had calculated in a 2019 season preview project that the 49ers roster actually was that good. He didn’t assert they would win the Super Bowl, but he had asserted that they could.

“There is a threshold of championship talent,” Adofo-Mensah said. “I study these things. I know them. And if you don’t have them, you don’t win. That’s very binary.

“The way you can screw up in this job is deceiving yourself that you’re there.”

Adofo-Mensah’s talent threshold philosophies wowed Browns general manager Andrew Berry in a 2020 interview. Adofo-Mensah had modeled, Berry told USA TODAY Sports, roster construction of NFL teams that recently advanced to the NFL playoff divisional round. How many All-Pro, Pro Bowl and starting-caliber players did the final eight clubs have each year? How did talent at different positions bolster a team’s “nontrivial chance” at a Super Bowl title, and was a certain caliber at any position non-negotiable? If so, how determinately could a team predict the caliber of a prospect anyway? 

“I believe in decision science and our abilities,” Adofo-Mensah said. “I don’t believe that I can pick the next Pat Mahomes that much better than anybody. If you give me five chances, I think we’d be better and we’d get four out of five rather than (others’) three out of five. But one shot, your odds are at best 65%, so they study this.

“It’s a little overconfident to think we’d be able to find the next one with certainty.”

Berry hired Adofo-Mensah as vice president of football operations to continue the search for answers. The Browns’ new VP was “a big influence” when they traded up seven spots in the 2021 draft to secure Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah at pick No. 52.

Owusu-Koramoah earned 10 starts as a rookie before a high ankle sprain landed him on injured reserve. He forced two fumbles, deflected four passes and added 1 ½ sacks to a 76-tackle collection.

“(Adofo-Mensah) would always push that we have to be humble in terms of we’re making an educated guess,” Berry told USA TODAY Sports. “These are all bets. We don’t really know. That quite honestly has allowed us to be a little more flexible on draft day because of that uncertainty.”

No longer were prospects just classified as expected role player, starter or difference maker. Adofo-Mensah reframed the conversation to model how a player’s strengths and weaknesses predicted “a range of outcomes for this bundle of characteristics for a particular player at this position,” Berry said. Quantitative analysis would remain Adofo-Mensah’s self-described “love language.” But in Cleveland, he also deepened his tape evaluation and football communication.

“Sometimes information comes as numbers and it’s really great, and sometimes they come as scouts reading reports and that’s great too,” Adofo-Mensah said. “So I think my best skill set is my ability to be multilingual and speak all of those languages.”

‘You never want to go full Rams’

Arriving in Minnesota, Adofo-Mensah worked to gauge: How far were the 2021 Vikings from the requisite talent threshold to contend? Did that evaluation dictate a drastic move at sports’ most weighty position: quarterback?

The NFL had watched as the Rams won the Super Bowl their first season after dealing two first-round picks, a third and quarterback Jared Goff in exchange for the Lions’ Matthew Stafford. This spring, the Broncos relinquished two firsts, two seconds and three players for nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson. The Vikings extended Cousins ($70 million guaranteed through 2023 plus two more voidable years) just before the Browns mortgaged three firsts, a third, two fourths and a record-setting, fully guaranteed $230 million contract for Deshaun Watson.

“Through my 10 years in the league going into 11 now, you’ve seen so many crazy things happen, you just always need to keep an open mind that anything can happen,” Cousins told USA TODAY Sports. “But my expectation was that I’d be here, that we’d be doing all we can to make a run at winning a world championship this year. I think we’re in that spot. But now we’ve got to go put that work in and go do it.”

Adofo-Mensah has described the plan as a “competitive rebuild.” He believes the Vikings were close but not at the necessary talent threshold to contend in 2021, and that their 2022 draft class gives them a chance — not a guarantee, but a chance — to overcome the hump. He takes solace knowing he’s not dramatically sacrificing years in which the team need only pay rookie contract salaries to talents like Pro Bowl receiver Justin Jefferson and offensive linemen Ezra Cleveland and Christian Darrisaw. O’Connell’s staff can embrace the challenge of maximizing those assets, all while Adofo-Mensah and his personnel staff decline to mortgage valuable draft picks. Neither on the field nor at the negotiating table does this Vikings team encourage “just being aggressive to be aggressive.”

“If it were a seven-game series, yeah, best team wins,” Adofo-Mensah said.. “That’s ultimately why when you’re team building, you never want to go full Rams. Because you need to give yourself three chances at it, four years at it. I know that’s hard for fans to hear.”

So for now, they concoct the best recipe with the available ingredients. The Vikings aim to rise from middle of the pack due to moves like hiring quarterback-savvy O’Connell and pivoting to an offensive scheme that Jefferson described to USA TODAY Sports as “very less predictable.” Defenders including linebacker Eric Kendricks tout a “pissed off” mentality after the Vikings lost a league-high eight games by one score last year.

Adofo-Mensah considers systems thinking about the “interconnectedness” of football in hopes of determining ways the offense can cut one negative run per game and one third-and-10; ways the defense can forfeit one fewer explosive play and get off the field with one more contained drive before halftime. He looks to O’Connell to be a “problem-solver,” while O’Connell describes his GM as the “smartest guy in the room who never makes you feel like it.” (O’Connell also insists he’s a “blockhead” in comparison.)

Players feed off the intellectual energy emanating from Adofo-Mensah as he roams sidelines and hallways, football spinning and mind racing.

“He’s very intelligent (and) well-rounded,” cornerback Patrick Peterson told USA TODAY Sports. “He’s that mad scientist that have his hand in the cooking pot at all times.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.