EAGAN, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings‘ new tight end can help his current team beat his former team Sunday and clinch the NFC North — but only if the receiver the Detroit Lions acquired in a draft day trade with the Vikings doesn’t beat them first.
Welcome to Vikings-Lions week, one that will provide an early test for the team-building theories of Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah.
All bets were off when Adofo-Mensah joined the team this year as the NFL’s first general manager with experience as an analytics staffer. Adofo-Mensah quickly made clear that he would not transform the Vikings into Moneyball 2.0, but in the months that followed, he has displayed an indifference for convention that will directly impact December football this season. Most notably, Adofo-Mensah has struck three significant trades with NFC North rivals who are in position to at least slow the Vikings’ coronation as division champions.
In making those deals, Adofo-Mensah focused less on what he was giving division opponents and more on what he was taking, a value he referred to as “inherent happiness.”
“You ask, ‘What is your happiness in this scenario versus the other scenario,” he said earlier this year. “That’s ultimately what your job is. Part of our happiness is to make sure we have the best team we can possibly put on the field. The other thing people should realize is [division opponents] can call other teams. … We would rather reap the benefits of the trade.”
Adofo-Mensah began the flurry by trading down in the first round of the April draft, a deal that netted receiver Jameson Williams for the Lions at No. 12 overall. Williams has returned from a torn ACL and will play Sunday against the Vikings in his second NFL game.
Adofo-Mensah later moved down in the second round to allow the Green Bay Packers to draft receiver Christian Watson, who has scored eight touchdowns in the past four games and will face the Vikings in Week 17 at Lambeau Field. Adofo-Mensah used some of the draft-day picks acquired from the Lions and Packers to move further down in the draft, but a reasonable tracing of the deals would consider safety Lewis Cine, cornerback Andrew Booth Jr., linebacker Brian Asamoah and guard Ed Ingram as the primary parts of the excess return.
The Vikings haven’t gotten much immediate impact from their draft class; Cine and Booth are out for the season due to injuries and only Ingram is playing regularly on offense or defense. And they have been open about how much they liked Williams as a prospect. But coach Kevin O’Connell said Wednesday he was on board with every move in the spirit of the team’s effort of what Adofo-Mensah has termed a “competitive rebuild.”
“I just think it all goes back to Kwesi and I,” O’Connell said, “and that dialogue we had before the draft, leading into it and during quite honestly. There were no surprises and nothing we hadn’t really talked about ahead of time, and just following through with the plan of how we wanted to competitively reload and rebuild in addition to making sure that the players we were lucky enough to have when we got here feeling like we are pouring everything we’ve got into those guys as well.”
On the other hand, the Hockenson deal has been a home run in the short term. Since joining the Vikings, Hockenson is tied for the most receptions by any NFL tight end (30). Fourteen of those catches have gone for first downs, second-best in the league over that span. Quarterback Kirk Cousins has targeted him 41 times, more than any other Vikings player besides receiver Justin Jefferson and second-most overall in the league for tight ends since Week 8.
“He’s done a great job for us,” Cousins said, “and we’ve got to keep using his skill set and putting him to work.”
It takes years for trades to be fully judged. And no matter what Williams and Watson do against the Vikings in the coming weeks, there remains a high likelihood that neither will stop them from winning the NFC North. The Vikings are confident in the decisions they made, and the partners they chose, but understand the unique nature of the judgment that awaits.
“We really looked at it as, ‘What is your outcome if we don’t do this trade versus what is your outcome if you stay and pick’,” Adofo-Mensah said. “Ultimately the division thing does come into it. But it also comes in [as], ‘Hey they have to play the Minnesota Vikings and all the players we’re going to get.’ And obviously it’s going to go from there. There’s also the possibility that they have backups. If we don’t do the trade, there’s odds that they could do the trade anyway.
“You are kind of factoring in many things that could happen, and we did that, and ultimately we’re happy with our decision.”