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Kwesi Like a Fox: Assessing Adofo-Mensah’s Draft Pick Trades

A Chess vs. Checkers View of Vikings’ New GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s Draft Trades

Now that the 2022 NFL Draft is over, we can begin to assess how well Vikings’ new GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah did in his first draft running the show.

The process of compiling the Vikings’ draft board is a collaborative one led by the GM, but with individual assessments from scouts, coaches, and other front office personnel that can be instrumental in assigning values to each prospect, and ultimately which players are selected. Clearly the GM is the one held accountable, but often the underlying assessment of a player selected comes more from coaches and scouts.

But when it comes to managing the draft and making draft pick trades (or not making them), that falls more directly on the shoulders of the GM for both the assessment and the decision. Coaches and scouts are less involved in making trade assessments, or deciding whether to make a trade, which often needs to be done within a couple minutes. And so while some other front office staff may weigh-in on a trade decision, it’s largely up to the GM to assess the deal and make the call.

The value gained or lost by draft pick trades is largely attributable to the GM alone, and therefore a key measure of his performance.

Adofo-Mensah’s background as a former Wall Street trader with degrees in economics from Princeton and Stanford, along with his NFL front office experience over the past several years, should have prepared him well for assessing and making the call on NFL draft pick trades.

So how well did he do in his first rodeo as GM?

Valuing Draft Picks

Assessing how well Adofo-Mensah did with his trades comes down to the relative value assigned to each draft pick. There are both quantitative and qualitative methods, but the complication is that the assigned present value is for an uncertain future value. Nobody knows for sure how good a player picked at any draft slot will be.

What is known is how well players have performed in the past at each draft slot, and using that data as a guide for assigning a value for each draft pick is really the only way to establish some kind of real-world data-based value chart that can be used to facilitate trades.

But before that data was available, back in the early 1990s, a petroleum engineer and wildcatter named Mike McCoy, who was friends with Dallas Cowboy’s owner Jerry Jones, created a draft pick value chart. He plotted the previous four years of draft trades- which then were somewhat arbitrary as there was no standard for valuing draft picks- on logarithmic paper. He arbitrarily gave the first pick a value of 3000 points and regressed the later values from there. His chart is frequently mis-attributed to and named after Jimmy Johnson, the Cowboys head coach at the time. He acknowledged the values he assigned for each pick were somewhat arbitrary- he didn’t have the statistical data to work with in assigning the values in his chart that we do today. Nevertheless, Jimmy Johnson’s value chart became the standard that teams use in valuing draft pick trades, and that has continued to this day, despite its known inaccuracies and shortcomings. League changes since then- like free agency, the salary cap, and compensatory picks- have also impacted the value of draft picks.

In 2008, the founder of Pro Football Reference (PFR), Doug Drinen, created a new value chart based on PFR’s Approximate Value (AV) metric, used to assign a value to the performance of an NFL player each season. While the AV measure has its limitations, it’s the only open-source measure available and provides a better basis for assigning draft pick values than the alternatives. Chase Stuart later revised Drinen’s AV chart a bit, and that became the standard AV-based value chart for draft picks. Kevin Meers with the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective refined AV-data into another AV-based draft pick value chart.

Another draft value chart, based on the value of second-contracts for players selected at each draft slot, an indirect measure of draft pick performance but with a view toward salary cap management, was developed by Jason Fitzgerald with OverTheCap and Brad Spielberger with Pro Football Focus (PFF). This is called the Fitzgerald-Spielberger NFL Draft Trade Value Chart.

Still another chart, developed by Rich Hill with Pats Pulpit, uses recent trade compensation data as precedent for valuing draft picks. Given that Jimmy Johnson’s chart remains the standard for draft pick compensation, it closely aligns with that chart. The exceptions being small divergences in first-round pick trades and Day 2 draft pick trades.

John Dixon, with Arrowhead Pride, has recently updated an AV-based draft value chart that more accurately mirrors draft pick value with AV data.

Below is a graphic illustrating the differences between the most recent draft value charts, along with the original Jimmy Johnson chart:

John Dixon

Here is also a graphic showing the correlation of AV data with draft pick slots:

John Dixon

And so if you value draft picks by actual AV-based performance data, collected from 1989-2016, the John Dixon draft pick value chart best represents that data. It should be noted that this is AV-data for players while with the team that drafted them, known as Draft AV. Once a player changes teams from the one that drafted him, he no longer accumulates Draft AV.

Value Chart Wars

By the mid-2000s, NFL GMs understood that Jimmy Johnson’s chart didn’t value draft picks correctly. At that time, Patriots’ GM Bill Belichick said there were more disagreements when it came to valuing draft trades, as teams used different charts. The result was it became more difficult to make trades. For example, one team had a value for a trade of 300 points, another 700 points, and neither cared what the other team’s chart said, so they couldn’t agree on a deal. That lasted for several years, but in more recent years Belichick said teams have gone back to the Jimmy Johnson chart as a common reference to facilitate trades, even as analytics and analytic departments have grown in importance.

The reason is that GMs with more advanced analytical models may be willing to make trades that appeal to their trade partner from a Jimmy Johnson value chart standpoint, but according to their more advanced value chart, favor them.

Brad Spielberger with PFF, in a recent article in the Washington Post, made that point:

If Team A wanted to trade up from No. 20 to No. 10 and Team B asked for two third-rounders, Team A could counter-offer a second- and a fifth-round pick. The offers are almost equal on McCoy’s [Jimmy Johnson] chart, and the second-rounder might catch Team B’s eye, but new charts show the two third-round picks are more valuable. And Team B is none the wiser.

Assessing Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s Draft Trades

All of the above is prelude and background for assessing Vikings’ new GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s draft trades.

The Quantitative Assessment

Using the charts shown above, these are the results of all the Vikings trades made during the draft by Kwesi Adofo-Mensah:

Looking at the results above, you can see that Adofo-Mensah came out ahead in both trades with division rivals according to the more recent value charts that are more closely aligned to AV performance (John Dixon) and second-contract value (Fitzgerald-Spielberger).

However, shortly after the trades were announced, Lions fans were delighted that they “fleeced” the Vikings, based on the Jimmy Johnson value chart. But looking at the trade from an actual AV performance standpoint, it was the Vikings who came out ahead.

Packers fans weren’t particularly pleased with the trade value, as they should be, as the Packers trade with the Vikings was lobsided in the Vikings favor no matter which chart you use. According to the most updated charts, the Packers got fleeced.

There is also the question of trading with a division rival. Why help a division rival who wants to make a trade? Adofo-Mensah said he took that into consideration when he made the call on those trades. But surely securing premium compensation for a draft trade with a division rival, adding to the Vikings draft capital while subtracting from that of division rivals, can be a compelling reason to make a trade, as it gains an advantage for the Vikings. And that is just what Adofo-Mensah did in making the trades.

The worst trade Adofo-Mensah made from a quantitative standpoint was the Colts trade. There he lost according to every value chart, trading up in the second round.

The Browns and second Raiders trades are interesting as they demonstrate the divergence of the charts in valuing fourth and fifth round picks.

Overall, Adofo-Mensah increased the Vikings draft capital, after deducting the cost of the 2023 fourth-round pick used to acquire #118 in the Browns trade, by 13 - 15% according to the more recent John Dixon and Fitzgerald-Spielberger charts. In both cases that equates to an additional mid-third round pick. He also subtracted the equivalent of a late-fourth or early fifth-round pick from the Lions, and a late-third or early fourth-round pick from the Packers. Not bad for his first draft rodeo as GM.

The Qualitative Assessment

The other way to assess Adofo-Mensah’s trades is a more subjective qualitative assessment. This can be done on both a draft class level, position group level, and individual prospect level.

At the draft class level, you can evaluate the draft class overall, and make assessments in terms of what rounds may have more value, based on the quality of the prospects likely to be available, than others. How quickly the quality of a draft class trails off may impact trade decisions. The drop-off in quality may also not be uniform across position groups (it usually isn’t), and that may affect trading strategy as well when matched with roster needs.

Lastly there is the individual player assessment.

In the Vikings case in this draft, they were faced with a choice at #12: they could draft safety Kyle Hamilton, or trade down and potentially draft safety Lewis Cine, which they did. And that leads to a comparative assessment of the two players. How much better is Kyle Hamilton, who was ranked as the #1 safety in this draft class, compared to Cine who was ranked 2nd or 3rd.

I made this anonymous comparison between Cine (Safety 1) and Hamilton (Safety 2). Based on athletic testing and 2021 college performance, it’s not immediately clear that Hamilton is the better prospect. Add that Cine was facing SEC competition, while Hamilton was facing B1G competition, only adds to Cine’s appeal. Scheme fit is another consideration. Hamilton may be better used as a strong safety only, given his coverage grades, while Cine could play both free and strong safety. In the Vikings scheme, safeties that can interchange and play both positions are more valued, as that helps disguise coverages, which is an important element in the defensive scheme. Of course there are other considerations between the two players, but it may well have been that on a qualitative assessment of the two players, the Vikings rated the two safeties near equal, or perhaps even preferred Cine from a scheme-fit standpoint, and so trading down and gaining more draft capital, while still drafting one of the safeties, was a better value.

Which is better: Kyle Hamilton, or Lewis Cine and Andrew Booth Jr.? That may have been part of the thinking in trading down as well.

The other assessment is whether Cine would still be available to you after trading down, which they could make based on consensus ranking, other team needs, there own evaluation, and team connections with Cine in the pre-draft process.

Wide receiver Jameson Williams was also a consideration, Adofo-Mensah said after the first-round, although WR coach Keenan McCardell had said in a pre-draft meeting that he thought there were bigger needs elsewhere than at wide receiver. At first thought, adding Williams to JJ and Thielen would give the Vikings the best WR trio in the league, and covering all three would be a nightmare for opposing defenses. But on the other hand, even with 5% more passing plays with the O’Connell scheme, Williams would simply take away targets to JJ, which isn’t an effective use of talent and is unlikely to help extension talks with JJ in a year or so.

The other consideration is trading with a division rival. Do you want to help them address a need with a player they covet enough to trade up for? In addition to the quantitative rationale above, there is also the consideration of what the Lions, in this case, would do if you didn’t trade with them. Perhaps they make a deal with the Texans, who have plenty of needs and therefore reasons to trade down, and still get their guy, only you didn’t trade down- something you otherwise felt was a good move for your team. The Lions might also have not traded, and perhaps drafted WR Christian Watson or George Pickens instead. The fact that you don’t trade with the Lions doesn’t ensure they won’t fill their roster need.

Also, not trading the #12 pick really limits trades later in the draft for the Vikings, as their remaining draft capital wouldn’t allow for significant moves, which could be beneficial for the team later.

With the Packers trade, it was reported that the Packers wanted to trade for the Vikings’ #32 pick at the end of Day One, but Adofo-Mensah turned them down. It may have been that the following day, the Packers approached him again, having sweetened the deal, in order to secure the #34 pick. Clearly they knew they were paying a hefty premium, but they were desperate enough- or coveted Christian Watson enough- to make the deal anyway. But that level of price gouging by Adofo-Mensah on a division rival should be encouraged, not questioned. Again, had the Vikings not made the deal, perhaps another team would have.

But when it came to trading up for Andrew Booth Jr., it may have been Adofo-Mensah who was feeling the pressure to land a top cornerback, and Booth may well have been his last opportunity to do so. And so when the Colts demanded a premium, he made the trade anyway. He probably felt better about it having just fleeced the Packers, so sacrificing a bit of the premium the Packers paid him to secure Booth’s services may have been well worth it to him. It may also have been that Booth was ranked high enough on their board that even with the trade premium, they still felt it was a bargain to draft Booth for that amount of draft capital. Booth was #22 on the consensus big board, so getting him at #42, even with the trade premium, could be seen as a bargain.

The rest of the trades, from a qualitative perspective, are more routine- smaller deals to move around based on how the draft unfolded- typically to land a coveted prospect feared to go ahead of you based on ‘runs’ on positions at a certain point in the draft or to jump a team you have reason to believe will draft the prospect ahead of you.

Risk and Uncertainty Remain High

Of course the reality is that despite advanced analytics and due diligence, nobody knows which, if any, decisions made were the right ones. Even modest success rates remain elusive and haven’t changed much over the last twenty years.

John Dixon

The above chart represents the success rate of NFL draft picks from 1989 to 2016. ‘Success’ being defined as an AV of 12, which is equivalent to an average starter for three seasons. And so even modest success has been difficult to achieve. Only 1 in 3 draft picks achieve that level of success.

Some of the most successful GMs have become very humble in their ability to select talent,

and have resigned themselves to the draft being a crapshoot, with luck playing as important a part in the outcome as their analytics and selection process. Less successful GMs tend to fail in part due to overconfidence in their ability to pick superior talent. This was the conclusion drawn from The Loser’s Curse, a study on the NFL Draft conducted in 2005. Overconfidence increases with the amount of data a GM has at their disposal- something that is spreading rapidly into the football analytics community- even though no data model or algorithm, selection process or methodology has proven significantly more accurate than another, and even teams employing more advanced analytics departments hasn’t yielded them better results when it comes to success rates in selecting prospects. That study also found that the NFL Draft is not an efficient marketplace, in part because of limited participants, and that teams tend to overvalue the top picks- something born out in other studies as well- based on historical performance data.

And so the increasing trend, given the risk, uncertainty, and low success rates in drafting players, is for GMs to trade down to gain more swings at the plate, rather than aggressively trading up and putting more of their draft eggs in one basket. That was Rick Spielman’s strategy in most of his drafts- trading down more frequently than he traded up. He was also the most prolific draft day trader in the league over his ten years as Vikings’ GM. Adofo-Mensah appears to be following that path as well.

Another more recent approach used by the Rams is to trade their first-round draft picks for proven veterans, rather than risk not hitting on a prospect with that draft pick. That strategy can be successful in the short-term, but given salary cap restrictions and the premium salaries the market provides top veterans, it’s not sustainable over the medium- or long-term. The Rams GM Les Snead wore a t-shirt in the Super Bowl parade with “F#$k those picks” on it, boasting of his strategy. But the reality is that the Rams, while trading their first-round picks, also had 45 picks in the five drafts from 2017-2021- 5th most in the league.

Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s approach appears similar to his predecessor’s, Rick Spielman, in preferring to trade down more so than trade up, based on his first draft. Analytics drive that strategy, and Adofo-Mensah came up through that avenue. I suspect Adofo-Mensah may have been predisposed to trade down with his first pick well before the draft, as the Vikings didn’t bother to meet with any of the top picks that may have gone around pick #12.

But we won’t know if his draft trade rationale and strategy will pay-off for the Vikings or not, and won’t know for a couple years at least until the performance of the drafted players, and that of the alternatives, are known. What is known is that the trades made sense from a historical performance perspective, and added value in that regard.

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Do you approve of the trades Kwesi Adofo-Mensah made during the draft?

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