Rams' sustainability hinges on success in draft's middle rounds

Rams thinking big picture with Gurley and Peters (1:12)

The NFL Live crew breaks down how the Rams using their fifth-year options on Todd Gurley and Marcus Peters will pay off for them in the long run. (1:12)

LOS ANGELES -- Day 1 of the NFL draft likely will come and go without so much as a peep from the Los Angeles Rams, and so will most of Day 2.

Last year, the No. 87 overall selection -- the Rams' top choice this week -- was made somewhere around 9:45 p.m. ET Friday. That's nearly 26 hours from the time the draft starts to the time the Rams finally make their first pick.

The team's front office, scouting department and coaching staff will nonetheless gather in the draft room Thursday, continuing to watch film and discuss scenarios while others navigate through Round 1. They'll watch closely when the No. 23 overall selection is made by the New England Patriots, at which point the Rams will think about the kind of player they could've had if they didn't instead use that pick to acquire wide receiver Brandin Cooks.

But they won't spend any time lamenting.

"If you told me we'd be getting a player like that at 23, I'd be throwing a pool party," Rams head coach Sean McVay told reporters from the team facility in Thousand Oaks, California, earlier this week. "And I don't even have a pool."

The Rams are low on draft capital but high on optimism. Cooks was only the last in what became a star-studded haul by general manager Les Snead, who also acquired cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh this offseason. Coming off a surprising 11-5 showing, the Rams are all-in on a Super Bowl. They're also hopeful of stretching their contending window a little bit further than 2018.

The Rams' cap space -- roughly $250 million over the next two years after picking up fifth-year options for Peters and running back Todd Gurley -- will help that cause. But they won't have sustainable winning if they ultimately don't get good value out of mid-round selections. They did so last year, acquiring wide receiver Cooper Kupp, safety John Johnson and outside linebacker Samson Ebukam in the third and fourth rounds -- three players who look like vital long-term pieces.

The Rams now have one pick in the third round, three in the fourth and four in the sixth, with a desperate need to duplicate success.

"We're excited about picking in those rounds," Snead said, "but it's all going to depend on whether the guys we're excited about fall to that area of the draft. You never know that."

Snead wouldn't specify his team's needs heading into the draft, but they're obvious. The Rams have an immediate desire for a plug-and-play edge rusher, with Robert Quinn traded to the Miami Dolphins and Connor Barwin still lingering in free agency. Ebukam and Matt Longacre proved to be capable backups last season, but the Rams need more talent there.

They also could use help at inside linebacker after sending Alec Ogletree to the New York Giants. Then there's the offensive line. The Rams return all five starters from last season, but they need to get going on the next wave. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center John Sullivan are each signed through 2019, but Whitworth is 36 and Sullivan is 32 with a history of back issues. Right guard Jamon Brown, right tackle Rob Havenstein and left guard Rodger Saffold -- heading into his age-30 season -- can all be unrestricted free agents next year.

The lack of draft capital stems largely from the Rams' trade up to No. 1 overall to select Jared Goff out of Cal in 2016, but more so from their affinity for players deep in their rookie contracts.

Last August, Snead sent this year's second-round pick to the Buffalo Bills for wide receiver Sammy Watkins. In February, he sent next year's second-round pick to the Kansas City Chiefs for Peters. Earlier this month, he sent this year's first-round pick to the Patriots for Cooks. Cooks and Watkins each came with only one year remaining on their rookie contracts, but Peters has two years left. They're all 25 or younger, all acquired largely because the limited practice time under the collective bargaining agreement has prompted the Rams to shift toward proven players still in the thick of their prime.

It's a risky strategy because major paydays loom so closely. And it already backfired once, when Watkins priced himself out of L.A. and instead signed with the Chiefs. But the Rams are confident in their ability to keep Cooks and Peters long term, and they like the idea that a worst-case scenario -- one of those players leaving via free agency -- could still net a third-round compensatory pick.

Still, the Rams must supplement what soon will become a top-heavy payroll with young, productive, cheap players at other positions, and they have to do so through the draft.

Using the Jimmy Johnson Value Chart, the Rams' draft capital from 2017 to 2018 ranks 1,388th among 1,413 based on two-year stretches since 1970, according to research from ESPN's Bill Barnwell.

Barring a move up, the 2018 draft will mark the Rams' first in 34 years without a pick in either of the first two rounds. Snead will be conducting his seventh with the organization. He's had nice finds in the third and fourth rounds (namely, Trumaine Johnson, T.J. McDonald and Pharoh Cooper), but also misses (Chris Givens, Barrett Jones, Tre Mason).

The first round will take place at 8 p.m. ET Thursday, followed by the second and third rounds starting at 7 p.m. Friday, then the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh rounds beginning at noon Saturday.

The Rams will watch Round 1 just like the rest of us.

"To be honest, I really don't know what's going to happen," Snead said. "It'll be fun. And I think it's always fun to go, 'OK, let's see who might have fallen to 23,' and we'll have fun looking at who we would've drafted if that would've been the case. What happens, then, on Friday ... you start strategizing -- do you move up, or do you move back and try to accumulate some more picks? I think that happens closer to Friday night than Thursday night."