How NIL and the transfer portal are shaking up the Vikings' draft strategy

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Each year as the Vikings prepare for the NFL draft, General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah asks his football operations staff for names of underclassmen they expect to leave college a year or two early, so he and the team's scouts can study them more closely. Increasingly, Adofo-Mensah finds some of the players he's scouted are going back to school.

"There's been multiple guys I've probably been [watching] for two years now, thinking they were going to [declare for the draft], and it's really interesting," he said at the NFL combine. "You talk about supply and demand issues. Like, [defensive] line was apparently a big issue in college and a lot of those guys got a lot of money to go back to college. And so that's gonna affect our league and the depth of that position and different things."

In each NFL facility, Adofo-Mensah has a counterpart overseeing preparations for a draft that seems to include fewer underclassmen each year. This year's draft included just 58 early entrants, the smallest number since the first year of the league's new rookie wage scale in 2011. The number peaked at 130 in 2021; it dropped to 73 in 2022, before falling to 69 in 2023.

The reasons for the shift aren't difficult to trace: the NCAA approved Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) rules on June 30, 2021 that allowed college football players to profit from their stature as athletes for the first time, giving well-known players the opportunity to earn nearly as much as they'd make as NFL rookies. That, combined with the NCAA's 2021 decision to allow athletes to transfer once without sitting out a year, provided college athletes with a level of empowerment their predecessors couldn't have fathomed.

For NFL teams, though, it's added a layer of unpredictability to a draft process that was already far from precise. Knowing who'll be in the next year's draft isn't as simple as it once was, and for Adofo-Mensah and Vikings coach Kevin O'Connell, the reasons behind a player's decision to stay in college or change schools provide clues about their makeup.

"I mean, I'm a markets guy. So I actually think it's great. I think the market should dictate those things. I think those players should have those choices," Adofo-Mensah said. "I do think it's really great. But I always notice Kevin's very intentional with his questions. And you are starting to ask [prospects] questions, 'Hey, why did you go back?' or, 'Why did you transfer?' Not that we're here to judge anybody, but we just want to see how a person thinks. You do get a sense for how they might respond as a professional; they've always sort of been professional, but now it's a little bit more out in the open so it's been a good dynamic to to learn more about that."

As a quarterback out of San Diego State, O'Connell was selected in the third round of the 2008 draft by the Patriots, joining a team that had come within three points of an undefeated season. He would begin training camp behind Tom Brady — the reigning NFL MVP who by then already had three Super Bowl rings — and Matt Cassel. O'Connell would be playing three time zones away from home and signed a four-year rookie contract with a team that offered no conceivable path to the starting job.

The environment in college now, O'Connell said, makes it harder to determine whether a player has the fortitude to handle a similar situation.

"You think back to even when I was in college: If you didn't get a lot of reps in a spring practice, you had to try to work your way towards getting more," O'Connell said. "If you played poorly in a game and they put somebody else in, you had to work your way back."

There wasn't an option back then to transfer without sitting out a year or even two, if you went to a team in the same conference.

"So when I got to the NFL, it was an incredibly adversity-soaked situation for me, but I still didn't feel there was an option where I was ever like, 'Where's the eject button?,'" O'Connell said. "For a lot of these guys, that 'easy' button sits on the table from the time they get to college to the time they get done. We don't have that available to us [in the NFL]. When we bring you into the building, we're pouring all of our heart and soul, resource-wise and into our efforts to develop you. You've got to meet us through the adversity and we'll work through it together, but there's got to be like, a true commitment."

O'Connell is the son of a former FBI agent, and at times, Adofo-Mensah has found himself marveling at the tack the coach will take to get a player to open up. For O'Connell, it becomes an effort to uncover answers to several questions he believes are essential.

"Do they love football? Do they love playing this game? Do they love being with their teammates, who love doing things for reasons that are greater than just themselves?" he said. "And it's harder to evaluate that now, especially with guys that are afforded unbelievable opportunities."

College football in the post-NIL world will likely continue to change, as NCAA conference realignment continues and further shifts to the sport's structure seem imminent. O'Connell, the former quarterback who might have wished for the same financial opportunities in his playing days, said he thinks the college football landscape "needs to be cleaned up a little bit rule-wise," but added, "I love every aspect of it."

It does mean, though, that as NIL changes the NFL draft and the players who enter it, the Vikings will have to change, too.

"It's something that we've got to work through because it is different now than it was even 10, 15 years ago," O'Connell said.