Mike Meredith / CBS Sports

In the spring of 2016, before he executed the trade with the Tennessee Titans to grab the No. 1 overall pick in that year's draft, Rams general manager Les Snead walked up to director of college scouting Brad Holmes and asked him two questions.

Would you trade up for a quarterback? If so, who?

Without hesitating, Holmes replied in the affirmative and gave Jared Goff as his top quarterback prospect. Then Snead walked off without hearing any explanation.

See, in Holmes' mind, the Rams had tried the other available options at figuring out the quarterback position. They had traded for Nick Foles the year before and he laid an egg. They drafted Sean Mannion in the third round believing they could develop him but didn't see enough of him in his rookie season. 

"I'm running through my mind and it seemed like we went down every avenue except doing what other teams do and just truly getting a top-notch quarterback that you have to spend on," Holmes says. "That's the one avenue that we haven't gone down. …We've identified Goff as a clear franchise quarterback, so let's expend the resources to get up and just get the guy."

And that was the last time the Rams picked a player in the first round of an NFL draft.

Snead's Rams aren't the first team to trade away future first-round picks for higher draft position or proven, veteran talent like Jalen Ramsey. But the team has committed to using its first-rounders in a currency exchange done with greater regularity than any other NFL team in the last three decades. The Rams are on the cusp of securing their third playoff appearance in four years, and a win Sunday against the Seahawks would put them in the driver's seat for the NFC West division title.

"However you use that first-round pick, I still think when you get to the fourth through seventh rounds — take the second and third out of it — you're best served by definitely trying to identify players that are going to play a useful role," Snead tells me. "Those players shouldn't be expected to become superstars, but they should have a good chance to serve a useful role."

This roster-building method has yielded a proven winner. There are associated costs, though. L.A. will have three players with cap hits greater than $20 million next year: Goff, Ramsey and Aaron Donald (who was acquired in 2014 with the traditional first-round pick the Rams owned.) Their combined 2021 cap hit of $85.017 million would account for more than 48% of the projected $175 million salary cap, which would have been upwards of $200 million without the COVID-19 pandemic.

With a cap crunch and without the comfort of higher-probability picks, the Rams have had to fill in the holes with a bevy of mid- to late-round draft picks playing key roles. But, again, this year offers another unique challenge. Scouts have been grounded for months. There's less recent tape on draft-eligible prospects than ever before. Traditional means of scouting the type of talent necessary to keep the Rams machine going aren't available to them—and they may not be before April's draft.

One of the most progressive team-building models in today's NFL will soon be challenged by the financial and logistical realities of the COVID-19 pandemic in ways unlike any other team in the league.

What will the Rams do next?

How the strategy came together

For the right to draft Goff No. 1 in 2016, the Rams gave up their 2017 first-round pick (among several other picks in those two drafts.) In 2018, the Rams traded their first-round pick to New England for the rights to wide receiver Brandin Cooks. The next year, the Rams had the 31st pick in the draft but traded back to accumulate more picks. Finally, during the 2019 regular season, the Rams traded their 2020 and 2021 first-round picks to Jacksonville for the rights to Ramsey.

Snead did all of these trades in the best interest of the team, but not all of them were created equally.

With the Cooks trade, the Rams were coming off an 11-5 season with rookie coach Sean McVay. They were picking at No. 23 and could have selected D.J. Moore or Calvin Ridley if they wanted a receiver. But Snead understood the window his team was in.

"We looked at the positions we'd look to add and knowing the landscape of that draft class, we were like man there's really nothing super intriguing that we would address at 23," Holmes says. "But Brandin Cooks in our offense at that time was very intriguing. To have that kind of speed and explosiveness at the X receiver position at his time, he's coming off multiple 1,000 yard receiving seasons. It's a guy who not only for myself but a lot of guys had a lot of love for when he came out in the draft, he was a favorite when he came out in the draft. To get that guy, OK, I'm excited about that more than I am going to be excited with whatever I pick at 23."

That same philosophy carried into the season. Snead recognized midway through the year that defensive coordinator Wade Phillips needed pass-rush help to make his system work. He sent a third-round pick to Jacksonville in exchange for Dante Fowler, believing if the edge rusher played well enough and they didn't re-sign him in 2019, they'd get a third-round compensatory pick back anyway. 

And as we know, the Rams made it to Super Bowl LIII where they lost to the Patriots. Fowler had 3.5 sacks and 8 quarterback hits for the Rams in the regular season and postseason, and Cooks put up a career-high 1,204 receiving yards in that year. 

The Ramsey trade last year was the big one. Snead wasn't looking for it, but when the All-Pro corner looked as though he could be had, the long-time Rams GM leaned on Holmes yet again for his thoughts.

"My whole thing was like look I think with our current state of our team, we'll be picking in the 20s," Holmes says, recalling his long text back to Snead as the possibility of the trade materialized. "Look at our defense and look at the defenses across the league. How many game-wreckers can you acquire on defense? We already have a game-wrecker [in Donald], but I'm looking across the league and thinking golly… how many people have two? How many have two where they're the best at their position? And they are true game-wreckers. 

"And I said Les I'm having a hard time finding one. So if you have to sacrifice two first-round picks and we've had this much success without first-round picks from a draft standpoint, I said yes, please, do that as quickly as possible to make that trade so we can acquire Jalen Ramsey."

That's the same line of thinking Snead had. Pair Ramsey with Donald and watch opposing offenses delude their playbook. Snead considered where L.A. would likely be picking and did some basic math based on history.

In 2018, the Patriots took tackle Isaiah Wynn with the Rams' No. 23 pick. The next year, the Falcons took tackle Kaleb McGary with the Rams' 31st pick. Snead wonders: would you be able to trade McGary and Wynn today for Ramsey? 

"I say draft picks are like new cars… and then you drive them off the lot," Snead says.

"I think you start looking at things like that. There's definitely the utilization of draft picks. And this was the hardest thing to do because there were many biases at play. And there has to be some efficacy in that you have to know that you can contend. It can't be a hope. You have to know. We're winning some games and we're in contention. It doesn't have to be the Super Bowl, but we have to contend for divisions."

The Rams were hardly the first team to trade two first-round draft picks for a player. But trading a star player still on his rookie deal for two first-round picks has happened with greater frequency in recent years (Khalil Mack, Laremy Tunsil, Jamal Adams and Ramsey). 

There are a number of reasons for that, including teams becoming more comfortable with not paying a star and continuing to build, as well as a greater ability for today's players to force their way out of franchises. But it all comes down to money, and the 2011 collective bargaining agreement that slotted rookie deals into more cost-controlled four-year contracts is the leading reason.

"It's now more likely that a Jalen Ramsey situation is going to happen where a team is going to trade its first-round pick because the other team is able to take on the contract because it's not as cumbersome," says JW Jordan, the Rams' director of draft management. "But to me it sort of levels the playing field for first- and second-round picks. Let's say the 25th pick in the draft is not much different now than if you have the 40th pick. From a financial sense they've come closer to what a second-round pick is anyway. 

"What you've seen in a typical draft there are 10-15 guys who are clear-cut going to be really good players in the NFL, and then the next 50 or so or all about the same. There's not a huge difference. They're either really good players with a critical flaw or may have one thing that may hold them back. 

"I think the benefits are, you can focus on the potential second-round guys. There's not a big difference when you're a team contending for the playoffs and you're picking in the 20s. It's not like it's a significantly better pick than a second-round pick."

But do the Rams miss the picks?

Holmes laughs when asked if he misses first-round picks. At this point, he says, the numbness of it all has set in. 

With no first-round pick in 2021, the Rams will have gone five straight years without one. No team in the past 30 years has gone five consecutive years without a first-round pick. 

Yes, the draft is unpredictable. And sure, you want to turn over as many rocks as you can. But as the Rams set their draft board, they also aren't going to exert unnecessary effort just for the sake of it.

"Once the season ends and you're in March, that's when you start to hone in on who's a realistic target for you," Jordan says. "Not only because they're good enough but you start to figure out around where you're picking and guys that you can kind of identify who are totally unrealistic. I don't think I'm giving away secrets that Trevor Lawrence is not a guy we're focusing on. 

"For us not having a first-round pick, this benefit is… let's say we have the 64th pick. There are probably 15-20, maybe 25 guys at most who you can reasonably say 99% sure there's no chance. So what that does is, from now to the draft, it does help us so we can focus on some guys who, had we had a first-round pick, we might not have been able to focus as intently on those guys and really increase the chances of hitting on them."

Beginning in October and going through this month, the scouting staff has been meeting weekly to review all the position groups in the draft. Holmes says he's actually ahead on his work by more than a month compared to previous years. Back in the summer he and Snead talked about adjusting their draft prep timeline to not ramp up just as the Rams are (hopefully) in the playoffs. Add in the fact that Holmes hasn't been on the road nearly as much this season due to the pandemic and he's been able to grind tape from home.

But the scouting staff had already gotten a jump on working virtually even before the pandemic. Snead believed having them work remotely and virtually would lead to being more efficient in both work and life, so COVID-19 didn't disrupt the Rams' process as much as it may have other teams.

"It's something we've installed as a part of who we are as a scouting staff that we are not fixed or concrete," says James Gladstone, the team's director of scouting strategy. "We each have the capacity to drive and stimulate the evolution itself, regardless of if it's forced upon us. It's important to frame that change and evolution as never falling too far in love with the success and wins but rather proactively seek out what might threaten next. And I think the virtual capacity is something that we can probably point to, even before COVID playing a part, that we actually had installed as part of our process."

What the Rams must do in the 2021 draft is what they've been doing the last four years: hit on mid- to late-rounders. Josh Reynolds has been a significant piece for this team four years after being drafted in the fourth. Sebastian Joseph, a 2018 sixth-round pick, has started in 29 of his 30 games. Left guard David Edwards has started 12 games this year after being scooped up in the fifth round of the 2019 draft. 

Cornerback Darious Williams went undrafted in 2018. The Rams tried to sign him as a free agent at the conclusion of the draft but he opted to sign with the Ravens. No matter, the Rams got him off waivers later that year and he has nine starts and four picks this season.

And all of that doesn't include the second- and third-round picks like safety Josh Johnson, tackle Joseph Noteboom, running back Darrelle Henderson, safety Taylor Rapp, running back Cam Akers and receiver Van Jefferson.

"We can pay the five stars as long as, with some of our depth, we don't turn around and say we need to pay for experience," Snead says. "So you have to be able to develop the younger players. And not only develop them but you have to have the courage to let your kid cross the road. At some point you can't always hire a babysitter to take your kid across the road because that costs more money. 

"That's imperative that you're able to do that. And I'm not saying you're missing out on middle-class players. I'm just saying the seven-to-eight-year player who may have a veteran minimum type salary of over $1 million, yes that's a luxury to have a fourth safety who's maybe had starts and all that. But it's imperative that our third and fourth safeties come from the draft."

2021 draft creates complications for Rams' unique plan

It's widely understood that the 2021 NFL draft will be unlike any other. Personnel folks have less tape than ever before on prospects. They haven't been able to watch guys at practice. They're getting their information from campus sources off Zooms. Some players opted out of the entire season. A handful of all-star games have been canceled. We still don't know if the combine is happening—or in what form—and don't even get started on what pro days may look like.

For a team like the Rams who have to hit in the fourth to seventh rounds to keep the machine going, the job is objectively tougher.

"We're not the only ones faced with this, so it is a level playing field," Gladstone says. "From our angle, we're going to seek to find competitive advantages in there. When we make decisions on who we are ultimately going to select with our draft picks, it typically goes back to the main thing and that is how do they perform on a football field and in that stressful environment. The football tape certainly gives you as clear a visual as you'll ever need."

And if there's a positive in not picking in the first, it's that there's less chance of being suckered by a player who may simply look the part.

"There's a tendency in the first round to over-index that freakishness with some of those prospects," Gladstone continued. "You have to establish these categories that you care about and one thing shouldn't rule the day so much, that physical freakishness shouldn't rule the day. And I know Les would probably say this that in the case of (former No. 2 overall pick) Greg Robinson that probably did. 

"But you have to do that in advance of seeing anyone and remain disciplined, otherwise you'll convince yourself of a different story. The one that you may want to hear. The second third and fourth round, actually the picture becomes clearer. From my vantage point, I love living in those rounds because that's the good football players. These are the types who play football really well but for whatever reason don't display the freakishness that land them in the first round."

It's a problem the Rams won't have to worry about until 2022. Unless they trade that one away, too.