Now that the Vikings have secured the services of Kwesi Adofo-Mensah as their next general manager, whose background is firmly grounded in analytics, the question arises as to how that background may influence his decision making when it comes to several key decisions he’ll need to make in the next couple of months.
It’s widely viewed, and there are plenty of stats and recent history to back it up, that you need a top quarterback for an NFL team to make a deep playoff run, including winning the Super Bowl. There are exceptions, usually when a team has a truly dominant defense, but other than that a top quarterback is essential to being a real Super Bowl contender.
Cousins was a top ten quarterback according to most broad-based QB metrics, including:
- Passer Rating - tied for 4th best with Russell Wilson
- ANY/A - 4th just ahead of Tom Brady
- EPA/play - tied for 7th with Matthew Stafford
- PFF Grade - 6th in overall grade, 4th in passing grade, behind only Burrow, Brady & Rodgers
Overall, that also means he’s performed better than at least 25 starting quarterbacks this season, including about a dozen first-round picks in recent years. It also means that he’s performing in-line with his pay grade among QBs on veteran contracts.
The other thing about quarterbacks, as it relates to contracts, is that no team has won the Super Bowl with a QB contract taking up over 13% of the salary cap, since the salary cap was implemented in 1994. Cousins’ contract is over 13% of the salary cap, and any restructure/extension is likely to be over 13% of the salary cap too, at least in most years depending on how it’s structured and the actual salary cap number in future years.
Here's a quick graph plotting Team Defense Ranking with QB% of salary for every QB to make the Super Bowl since 1994 (Introduction of Salary Cap). Blue represents Winners, red is losers. Notice a trend? pic.twitter.com/YAbCXLMKnM— Joe Spinosa (@realjoespinosa) January 27, 2022
Analytics also say that it’s not very likely to draft a top ten quarterback, even with a first-round pick. And, even if successful with the pick, it may take a couple of years on average for the quarterback to reach the top ten. Additionally, the 2022 draft class is not seen as a good one for quarterbacks.
Not a single passer is viewed as a top-10 lock, and perhaps only the most QB-needy teams in the league are likely to consider gambling a first-round selection on the position. - Rob Rang on the 2022 QB draft class
All that suggests that Adofo-Mensah may look to extend Cousins, hoping to get as close to a 13% cap hit as possible, barring a QB candidate in this year’s draft that really rates high on all the analytical metrics- which appears unlikely. Of course if negotiations with Cousins don’t yield something close to 13% of the salary cap, that could force his decision-making in another direction.
But overall, it may prove more fruitful for the Vikings to focus on improving the offensive line, which is still mediocre but with at least three decent starters under contract, along with the defense, which is in more need of draft capital to rebuild- particularly with some aging starters and a few open starting jobs. Extending Cousins may also allow the Vikings to free up some cap space this year, which along with some other deals, could give the Vikings the cap space needed to sign some quality free agents.
As a former Wall Street trader, it would seem unlikely for Kwesi Adofo-Mensah to sit on his draft picks without making some trades, particularly given the parameters of the NFL Draft.
Most draft-day trades still fall pretty close to the Jimmy Johnson value chart, which he created in the 1990s, even though those values incorrectly value draft picks. ‘The Chart’ as Jimmy Johnson’s value chart is known, over values early picks and undervalues later ones, based on a variety of metrics from historical Approximate Value of the players picked, to WAR or wins-over-replacement value of the players picked, to other contract-related metrics. A good article that goes into some detail on all this is here.
This creates what is known as arbitrage opportunities, which seeks to benefit from mispriced investments. In the NFL, this strategy is practiced by teams that trade down for more undervalued picks using The Chart for trading terms. Of course Adofo-Mensah’s predecessor, Rick Spielman, was an avid practitioner of this trading strategy, and the most active draft-day trader of any GM in the league during his tenure.
Below is a chart from the 2020 draft which includes a couple trades the Vikings made- with San Francisco and New Orleans. Also shown are a couple trades Cleveland made- when Adofo-Mensah was there- effectively using the same strategy to create added value.
If you look at the Cost (JJ) column, this represents cost using the Jimmy Johnson chart. As you can see, all the trades but the one NO-CLE trade were within a few percent of the Jimmy Johnson chart value. However, the other more updated columns for WAR, AV and Fitzgerald-Spielberger (FS) (contract-based) metrics show a significant premium paid to the team trading down.
And as a former commodities trader and analytics guru, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if Adofo-Mensah followed Spielman’s and his former boss Andrew Berry’s example in Cleveland in draft-day trading strategy.
Improving the Vikings’ Use of Analytics
In the most recent ESPN rankings of NFL team analytics Cleveland, Adofo-Mensah’s former team, came out on top. The rankings were based on a 13-question survey sent out to a member of each team’s analytical staff. 22 of 32 responded. Not the best methodology for ranking analytical staff, but better than the alternatives at this point, which don’t exist. In any case, there doesn’t seem to have been much doubt among the responders as to which team did the best analytical work in their front office- Cleveland was the runaway favorite.
The Vikings ranked tied for 7th (4 votes) for which five teams are the most analytically inclined, and Vikings’ former GM Rick Spielman had mentioned several times over the past few years how the team is using more analytics into their draft process and other things, and how the team has invested more in that area. So, the Vikings weren’t an analytics backwater among teams in the NFL, but I suspect Adofo-Mensah will bolster that department with new staff and resources to make it one of the best in the league.
Of course the two top teams in the analytical rankings- Cleveland and Baltimore- didn’t make the playoffs this year, while the two bottom ranked teams- Tennessee and Cincinnati- did. That shows that analytics, while a league buzzword, isn’t the be-all-end-all. But it is a key tool that could bring an advantage in a league known for parity, and better to be good at it rather than not.
What Analytics Can’t Predict
Of course every GM decision doesn’t come with a ready-made algorithm to consult, and many are more about people than quantitative analysis. Adofo-Mensah spoke to that directly and indirectly at times during his first press conference as Vikings general manager, and at times played down the idea of his being an analytics guru, saying it was one methodology that is best paired with others to cover blind spots in each, to arrive at the best decision.
But some decisions don’t have a lot of analytics to drive them.
The first such decision is who the next head coach will be.
The Vikings’ search committee, led by the Wilfs but including key executives too, has emphasized the ability to communicate and collaborate effectively as key qualities they’re looking for in both a GM and head coach. Largely it would seem, based on the lack of those abilities in Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman and the deterioration it caused in team culture and chemistry toward the end of their tenures.
Kwesi Adofo-Mensah has demonstrated a strong skillset in these areas with both the Browns and 49ers- and comes highly praised in that regard. And based on the Wilfs’ directive, it would be surprising if the next Vikings head coach doesn’t have a solid reputation in both of those areas as well. But ultimately it’s the head coach that puts more of a stamp on team culture than a GM.
With that in mind, in addition to effective communication and collaborative ability, the Vikings’ search committee is rumored to be looking for a head coach with Mike Tomlin’s character and leadership ability. Tomlin, long-time head coach of the Steelers, managed to navigate the Steelers through several difficult situations over the years and kept the team competitive throughout. He’s never had a losing season and won a Super Bowl early in his head coaching career, appearing in another.
It’s unclear at this point if Adofo-Mensah favors any candidate, but the list of available candidates the Vikings have interviewed is getting shorter, as they either get hired or in one case (Dan Quinn) have removed themselves from consideration. Of those remaining, the two Rams’ coordinators, Kevin O’Connell and Raheem Morris, and 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans all have connections with Adofo-Mensah.
O’Connell was assigned to offensive Special Projects with the 49ers for a season back in 2016, when Adofo-Mensah managed football research and development. He was also a longtime backup quarterback. At first blush the 34-year-old Rams’ offensive coordinator doesn’t seem to have the Mike Tomlin thing going on- if that is indeed a consideration.
Raheem Morris has been a coach on both sides of the ball, starting as a defensive backs coach with the Bucs and WFT, before being tapped by Dan Quinn to be assistant head coach, wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator in Atlanta, and ultimately interim head coach after Quinn was fired. He then became the Rams defensive coordinator this year. While that certainly is a healthy resume, I’m not sure he achieved much at those jobs. The Rams defense has declined this year under his stewardship, and with the Rams he had Kyle Shanahan and Steve Sarkisian as OC above him calling the shots, so not clear what credit goes to him for the Falcons passing game.
That leaves DeMeco Ryans, who is getting a lot of praise for his defense this year for the 49ers. He took over for the departed Robert Salah and improved the 9ers defense over a season ago. Ryans himself has said Mike Tomlin is the role model for the type of head coach he would like to be, which of course fits with what the Vikings search committee, pre-Adofo-Mensah, was rumored to be looking for. Ryans, 37, is a former linebacker with the Texans and Eagles, who won defensive rookie of the year and had a couple Pro Bowl years as well. Ryans was defensive quality control coach and inside linebackers coach while Adofo-Mensah was with the 49ers.
But since Adofo-Mensah has been hired, the Vikings have added one more candidate, who they just interviewed, Patrick Graham- defensive coordinator of the Giants. This appears to be at the behest of Adofo-Mensah, who reportedly has a relationship with Graham. Graham was a position coach for several years with the Patriots, but since then has bounced around with a few teams on 1–2-year stints. The last two seasons he’s been defensive coordinator for the Giants, whose defense has declined over that time, and was ranked 23rd this season. Prior to that, he was defensive coordinator in Miami, who had the worst defense in the league. That resume doesn’t add up to a top head coaching candidate, or even a top defensive coordinator candidate, so not sure the purpose behind the interview, but perhaps Adofo-Mensah views his abilities differently. We’ll see.
Another late edition to the Vikings head coach search is Jim Harbaugh, also presumably at Adofo-Mensah’s request. Harbaugh is current head coach of Michigan, but Kwesi Adofo-Mensah worked with him briefly in San Francisco early in his tenure there. Harbaugh, 58, has a .695 winning percentage as an NFL head coach, and never had a losing season in his four seasons as head coach of the 49ers. Harbaugh had been linked to the Raiders, but now it seems Josh McDaniels has the inside track there. There was also some rumors with Chicago, but the Bears have made their selection. Harbaugh was also head coach at Stanford for several years, where Adofo-Mensah received his masters degree. Harbaugh’s departure from the 49ers was controversial, as he had compiled an excellent winning percentage over four seasons, and took the 49ers to the Super Bowl. Apparently he was a victim of a power struggle with GM Trent Baalke and CEO Jed York. But in the eight seasons before Harbaugh arrived in 2011, the 49ers hadn’t had a single winning season and were a cumulative 46-82. In the two seasons after he was let go, the 49ers are 7-25. In the four seasons Harbaugh was head coach, the 49ers were 44-19, went to three straight NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl and never had a losing season.
I’m sure the Vikings and Adofo-Mensah will want to understand what happened in San Francisco, and if Harbough is the right fit for the Vikings. He could be- certainly his success in San Francisco is a strong resume- but he doesn’t appear to be a low maintenance personality either, and that could eventually result in issues like those with the 49ers.
Yes, I included Cousins in the analytics section, so how can he be here too? Well, Adofo-Mensah won’t be the only decision-maker here. The head coach will have a say as well. In fact, the decision regarding Cousins may be part of a deal to land a head coach, one way or another. And the head coach may have different ideas, potentially, than a primarily analytical approach.
OTHER COACHING DECISIONS
It’s unlikely Adofo-Mensah will look to override a head coaches’ choice for who he wants to be his coordinators and position coaches, as in most cases a GM will allow the head coach the final say in those decisions. But you would also expect some collaboration, particularly with coordinators, but again that may be more qualitative than quantitative evaluation.
Kwesi Adofo-Mensah will certainly be a catalyst for improved usage of analytical tools in the Vikings processes, whether in evaluating talent or on-field decision-making. Improving the Vikings’ analytics department will probably be a focus for Adofo-Mensah after the initial rush of decisions and draft have concluded, and he has time to evaluate in player personnel staff.
But don’t expect a massive shift from his predecessor, Rick Spielman, in some aspects of his job as GM. Most decisions will likely be made with some elements of quantitative and qualitative research, as Adofo-Mensah himself explained in his initial press conference.
The main thing Adofo-Mensah will want to establish, and maintain, is the communication and collaboration that were missing toward the end of the previous regime. Heading up the analytics aspect of that collaboration will bring a lot to the table, as will Adofo-Mensah’s own intellect and communication and collaborative ability. Coaches and players will appreciate those resources and the ability to build relationships based on them.
But when it comes to putting a stamp on the overall culture of the team and franchise, that usually flows mostly from the head coach, and sometimes from leaders among players as well. Adofo-Mensah will have a hand in establishing who that person will be, and once chosen, will be a key partner in building a championship roster and coaching staff.
We won’t know much about progress on that score until the end of the year, but some huge initial decisions will be known in the coming days/weeks, starting with the new head coach.
Was Kwesi Adofo-Mensah a good hire for the Vikings as General Manager?
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