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NFL’s best teams draft defensive players early

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Super Bowl-quality teams take offensive skill-position players in the first round about half as frequently as the rest of the league.

The last time the New England Patriots or Atlanta Falcons drafted an offensive skill-position player in the first round of the NFL draft, it was to grab Laurence Maroney in 2006 and Julio Jones in 2011, respectively.

Since then, the two teams that appeared in Super Bowl 51 have focused predominantly on scooping up defensive talent early in the draft.

And the trend goes deeper than that. Of the last 10 teams to play in the Super Bowl — which includes two appearances each by the Patriots, Seattle Seahawks, and Denver Broncos — 62 percent of first-round picks in the four years leading up to their respective appearances were used on defensive players, compared to the league average of 52 percent.

Just 14 percent of those picks were used on offensive skill-position players, nearly half of the league average of 27 percent.

So if the teams at the top of the standings focus on defense to excellent results, why would the rest of the NFL not follow suit? Why continue to draft offensive skill players when it doesn’t seem to yield championship-level rosters?

Well to get to the Super Bowl, a team typically requires two things: A quarterback and a defense.

The last four Super Bowls featured Tom Brady twice, Russell Wilson twice, Peyton Manning twice, Matt Ryan after an MVP season, and Cam Newton after an MVP season. For teams with such dynamic options under center, quarterback hasn’t had to be an option early and the boost that comes with a skill-position player isn’t necessary.

Instead, those teams typically have the luxury to focus on the defensive side of the ball with the knowledge that a player like Brady or Manning (pre-2015 edition) didn’t need top 10 picks around him to make an offense hum.

Teams without a franchise quarterback over the last five years — like the Cleveland Browns or Houston Texans — are much more prone to be in the hunt for a passer and fill the rest of the offense with talent. Four of Cleveland’s eight first-round picks over the last five years were offensive skill players, as well as two of Houston’s four first-round picks over the last four years.

The moral of the story is: It’s sure nice to have a good quarterback.