EAGAN, Minn. -- Anticipation mounted last week in Minnesota. The Big Reveal was imminent. Three months after hiring a general manager with an economics background, the Minnesota Vikings were about to find out how Kwesi Adofo-Mensah would run his first NFL draft.
As the first round approached, a reporter asked whether he was looking forward to putting his unique signature on the event. Adofo-Mensah gently interrupted and said: "I hope they don't say it's my signature about anything. It's our signature. ... This is about 'we.' I'm not going to do anything for the sake of me or any type of perception I want out there in the public."
The response might have sounded like a cliché, but it proved predictive in the days that followed. Multiple participants in the draft room noted, without prompting, how Adofo-Mensah demanded their opinions during the draft process. And because much of the Vikings' draft room was comprised of the executives and staff members assembled by previous general manager Rick Spielman, the team's 2022 draft followed a familiar path.
Adofo-Mensah traded aggressively, making a league-high six deals. That total, however, was one fewer than Spielman's in 2017, and it matched his sum from 2019. The team's decision to draft defensive backs with its first two selections addressed a clear need, but it was also a recognizable strategy. Spielman selected 16 defensive backs during the eight years he worked with coach Mike Zimmer, including five in the first three rounds over that period.
What happens when an economist runs an NFL draft? Other than a mild snub of the conventional wisdom against making intradivision trades, Adofo-Mensah, an economics major at Princeton who began his career as a Wall Street commodities trader, did nothing to suggest he will be a paradigm-shifting disrupter.
"It seemed like a normal NFL approach for a team that is being led by analytics," said Randy Mueller, a pro football executive for four decades who served stints as the general manager of the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins. "Their process seemed sound for people who view it like that. This is the process that their [general manager search] committee selected, and this is the kind of draft you would expect to see from it. The proof will be in the pudding a few years down the road, but that's true for every team and GM."
After firing Spielman and Zimmer in January, Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf made clear that they wanted a more horizontal leadership structure. So it's worth noting that Adofo-Mensah and new coach Kevin O'Connell have used the word "collaboration" so frequently in interviews that they now apologize for repeating themselves.
"He's so good about listening to everyone and creating consensus," said Ryan Grigson, a former general manager of the Indianapolis Colts who Adofo-Mensah brought with him from his previous stop in Cleveland. "I've never seen anything like it. The broad scope of how many people and different avenues the information comes from ... whether it's data, an assistant coach, a scouting assistant. Everyone's got a voice. And he's for real with that. Everyone has been involved. That's been awesome to see."
Adofo-Mensah's interest in various ideas is genuine, according to Vikings national scout Chisom Opara.
"Kwesi is a very smart guy," Opara said. "And I think one of the best things about him is, for a guy who is so smart, he is still really intellectually curious. He wants to challenge himself. He wants to find ways to think better or have better models or better options than he already has. Whether it comes to reaching out to scouts or coaches or analytics or any of the inputs, he's not intimidated by more information. That makes it easier to speak your voice as scouts, whether you may be right or wrong, and just putting it out there and having those conversations to get us closer to having the right answers."
In one such instance, Adofo-Mensah allowed himself to get talked out of a deal to trade the Vikings' first-round pick for a second time. After starting off at No. 12 and moving down to No. 32, he had a chance to move out of the first round altogether in exchange for additional picks. He referred to the offer as a "curveball." Personnel evaluators in the room thought Georgia safety Lewis Cine represented too much value to pass on, and they were fairly certain he would miss out on him had they made the deal.
"At the end of the day," Adofo-Mensah said, "everybody wants to be heard. They want their voice heard, but sometimes people want to be listened to. We all have our emotional needs, and we want to be listened to. That dynamic is interesting."
If Adofo-Mensah plowed any new terrain in this draft, it was trading down with both the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers, allowing each to draft a receiver they had targeted. Convention would suggest avoiding any effort to aid a divisional opponent, but Adofo-Mensah viewed the decisions as a competitive advantage. Not only did the Vikings gain extra value by trading down, he reasoned, but they extracted that value from an NFC North team.
It's fair to wonder if the Vikings got enough in return in each case; ESPN's Approximate Value draft trade chart awarded them moderate wins in both deals. But Adofo-Mensah said he thought in terms of alternatives, rather than solely return value, and was acting on the strong belief that both teams would have found a trade partner elsewhere if the Vikings had refused.
The deals were hardly unprecedented in team history. A Spielman trade in the 2010 draft, for example, allowed the Lions to move back into the first round and select running back Jahvid Best at No. 30 overall.
"It's really the same thing as economics," Adofo-Mensah said. "It's how happy are you in this outcome versus in this outcome versus this outcome."