Whispers of decline a couple years ago seem downright laughable now, after Brees topped 5,000 yards and 35 touchdowns last season for the fourth time in his career. It's a truly impressive feat considering outside of Brees, 5,000 yards has been accomplished only four times in NFL history. Brees just did it for the fifth time. He did it with volume and accuracy, attempting a career-high 673 passes and finishing with a completion percentage that ranks eighth all-time (he owns three spots in the all-time top 10). And even if his arm strength isn't what it once was, he was still effective downfield last season, completing 45.5 percent of his attempts over 20 yards (6th) with 18.1 YPA, second only to Matt Ryan's 18.5. Brees' two aberrations came at a bad time for fantasy owners -- Weeks 13 and 14 -- when he threw three interceptions and no touchdowns in back-to-back games. But that's about the only negative to take away from his season. He's 38 this year, entering his 17th season, and shows no signs of slowing. Since joining the Saints in 2006, he's only missed two games. The team added Adrian Peterson to the backfield and Ted Ginn to a wideout corps that lost playmaker Brandin Cooks. Michael Thomas and Willie Snead return, giving Brees plenty of weapons in an offense that will again be throwing all day thanks to a bad defense.
Early in the 2015 season it looked like Brees might be close to the end of his illustrious career. He seemed to be badly missing tight end Jimmy Graham, and a shoulder injury picked up in Week 2 left him seemingly unable to throw deeper passes when he did return, relying instead on short routes and yards after catch from his running backs or breakout receiver Willie Snead. It also sidelined him for a game for the first time since 2009. That was all forgotten, though, after a historic Week 8 performance that saw Brees light up the Giants' defense for 505 yards and seven TDs, and from that point forward he looked more like the dynamic quarterback the Saints were used to. The 37-year-old has never had the biggest arm, but Sean Payton's offense is tailor-made for his quick release and accuracy and the organization continues to supply him with a wealth of targets, signing tight end Coby Fleener in the offseason and then drafting Ohio State receiver Michael Thomas in the second round. While his age can't be ignored, there's little reason to believe Brees can't throw for at least 4,300 yards and 30 TDs for the ninth straight season.
Brees topped 650 attempts and 4,900 yards for the fourth consecutive season last year, but his YPA dropped to a four-year low, as did his touchdown percentage, to 5.0 (averaged 6.5 from 2011-13). While some questioned the 36-year-old's arm strength, Brees attempted and completed virtually the same number of deep balls as in 2013. He struggled, though, in the 21-30-yard range, where his 27 attempts were his fewest in seven years. His YPA dropped by 4.57, and he threw five fewer touchdowns from that range than in the previous season. The cause in part was an injured Jimmy Graham, who played through a shoulder sprain suffered in Week 5. Often jammed at the line and unable to fight through double-teams, Graham saw a four-year low in targets, totaling 10 fewer receptions of 25-plus yards (3) than in 2013. Worse still for Brees, Graham, who accounted for 28.6 percent of Brees' touchdowns and 21.2 percent of his yards the last four seasons, was traded in March, as was wideout Kenny Stills, one of the league's most efficient receivers the last two years (11.7 YPT). The Saints did not replace either, instead expecting more from tight ends Josh Hill and Ben Watson and wideout Nick Toon, among others. Brees, though, will be helped by the return of promising playmaker Brandin Cooks, who missed the final six games of 2014 with an injury, and the addition of C.J. Spiller, who could rekindle a Darren Sproles-type role that was sorely missed last season. The only quarterback to finish in the top 5 in fantasy scoring each of the last nine years, Brees likely will keep his streak alive, but he could take a hit if the Saints' young receivers don't develop.
Brees' spot this high in the rankings is dependent on the availability of Jimmy Graham, who was in a contract-related dispute with the Saints over his positional designation as of press time. As long as Graham plays 16 games for the Saints, though, Brees will be a strong bet to be among the league's leaders in passing yards, as he has three straight seasons with 5,000 or more. The Saints called for 650 or more pass attempts in each of the last four years and, with the exception of a 2010 aberration, Brees has seen his YPA hover in the 7.7-to-8.5 range going back to 2008. Brees' efficiency might even improve over the 7.9 YPA and 6.0 percent touchdown rate he posted last year, as the Saints added Biletnikoff Award-winning wideout Brandin Cooks in the first round of the draft. Although he's only 5-10, 189 pounds, Cooks has 4.3 speed, excellent ball skills and big hands. Plus, he's coming off a season in which he caught 128 passes for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns at Oregon State. Cooks might be the best after-the-catch receiver Brees has ever played with, and he should single-handedly make the Saints offense more efficient between the 20s. Brees' numbers should also benefit from the progress of second-year pro Kenny Stills, who was very impressive in 2013, averaging 12.8 yards per target in a part-time role.
If you want one stat to confirm Brees' dominance, consider he has thrown for at least 5,000 yards in three of the past five seasons. Those three seasons represent half of the 5,000-yard performances in NFL history. And though it seems like Brees has been around forever, he'll be just 34 years old in 2013.
Brees is also remarkably consistent from game to game. In fact, he had either 300 yards or three touchdown passes in 14 of 16 games last season. In the two games he had neither, he had 213 yards and two scores in one and 239 yards and two scores in the other. Moreover, his 89 touchdown passes from 2011-12 are the highest total ever for a two-year span, thanks to Brees being the league's most prolific thrower in the red zone – his 103 attempts in that area last year were 12 more than Tom Brady's, and his 55 from inside the 10 were also tops.
Plus, Brees is the king of attempts generally. He's thrown at least 635 passes in five of the past six seasons. Since the deviation in quarterbacks' YPA is relatively low, they typically post outstanding fantasy numbers by throwing the football often. Brees will do that yet again in 2013, making him perhaps the safest bet in fantasy football. And with head coach Sean Payton back in the mix, you can expect Brees & Co. to perform at peak efficiency throughout the year.
It would normally be a no-brainer to rank Brees ahead of players like Tom Brady, Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford, particularly after Brees just set the NFL’s single-season passing record with an absurd 5,476 yards, but the team around him is set to decline this year. New Orleans lost its best offensive lineman, guard Carl Nicks, in free agency to the in-division Buccaneers, and wide receiver Robert Meachem left for San Diego in free agency. While the team filled those departures with Pro Bowl guard Ben Grubbs via free agency and wide receiver Nick Toon in the NFL Draft, questions still remain. The biggest news, though, is that head coach and play-caller Sean Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season due to New Orleans’ alleged bounty scheme. Without his play-caller and two of his best teammates, it’s easy to see Brees slipping in 2012. Of course, “slipping” when you are Brees will still more than likely entail throwing for at least 4,500 yards and 32 touchdowns, but this sort of drama is unprecedented for him.
It might not seem fair to call a 4,620-yard, 33-touchdown season a down year, but Brees’ 22 interceptions and average of just 7.0 yards per pass attempt are well below par for him. Brees has never thrown more than 18 interceptions before last year, and two of the three seasons prior to last saw him post averages of 8.0 yards or more per pass. In addition, there’s little doubt the MCL sprain Brees played through in 2010 hurt his numbers. If those points alone don’t give reason to expect improvement from Brees in 2011, consider the effect Mark Ingram’s arrival might have. The Saints finished the regular season with a rushing average of just 4.0 yards per carry, and the team’s total of nine rushing touchdowns was tied for fourth-lowest in the league. Ingram gives the team its most talented runner since Deuce McAllister, and putting him in the place of players like Julius Jones, Ladell Betts and Reggie Bush figures to provide an instant and considerable improvement to the Saints offense. With improved health, a revived running game and history on his side, Brees looks fully prepared for another great season.
Brees remains our No. 1 ranked QB because the Saints foundation remains throwing the rock, not pounding it. Brees averaged 644 attempts in his first two years in New Orleans and fell to 514 in ‘09, though he only played 15 games. However, part of the reason he lost attempts was because of his increased efficiency — his 8.54 YPA and 70.6 completion percentage. He also had 39 big-play passes (25-plus yards), second only to Eli Manning. The other reason we like Brees best is that the lack of a star system at the skill positions liberates him to look for the open man, spreading the ball around and thus being much harder for even the best defenses to contain. Anyway you slice it, Brees is a lock for 4,200 yards. Should the Saints regress and finish closer to .500, you’ll see the attempts soar to the 650 level again, with diminished YPA but with a yardage total similar to 2008’s. Combine the highest ceiling with the highest floor and the perfect home conditions for throwing the football, and you have our top-ranked QB.
He’s the No. 1 guy at the position now because he’s talented enough in reality while getting the best playing environment in which to produce fantasy points.
First, look at the schedule. The only reasonable chance for bad weather is Dec. 6 at Washington. All of his fantasy playoff weeks are indoors. He plays the AFC and NFC East, out of division. That’s not looking so inviting on paper, but the elements will be a factor in one of those games at most.
Of course, Brees can go up and down the field against anyone in Sean Payton’s high-octane passing offense. The Saints are the perfect illustration of the theory that the QB makes the receivers, not vice versa. Sure, Marques Colston and Lance Moore are probably better than anyone thought, but they are seventh-round/free-agent types playing like Pro Bowlers most weeks because Brees finds the open man, and Payton knows how to get men open.
Brees has 1,287 passing attempts the last two years, averaging 644 per year. If he averages 7.2 yards per attempt (his career rate), that’s 4,636 passing yards. This is your foundation when drafting Brees. The TD passes are going to be in the 27-to-35 range. You see how the points just add up like a pinball machine. If his YPA is 8.0 like last year, you soar past 5,000 passing yards (250 points in most formats).
You’d think you’re assuming a major injury risk with all these attempts, but Brees has been sacked 29 times total the last two years combined – or once every 44 attempts. Yes, he’s prone to the stupid pick, but that’s the fantasy owner’s best friend when his QB does it – especially when it’s returned for six. That just means another possession and even more passing. Saints opponents registered five defensive TDs in 2008.
The Saints pass defense was bad last year, even more tailwind for Brees owners. New Orleans yielded more than seven yards per attempt with 21 TD passes allowed. So the team can’t reasonably sit on a lead even when it gets off to a fast start.
Brees averaged nine TD passes per month after
September; that's a 36-TD pace. Of course, he
killed his owners early with the 1-TD, 7-INT first month. Slow starts are painful to endure because they lead to rash moves as we foolishly assume that early season samples are more meaningful and lasting.
We worry less about an injury given that he
was dropped just 18 times in 652 attempts. He
also burned the blitz: 98.2 rating when the defense sent an extra rusher.
Brees is the 2007 poster boy for the cheap TD:
18 scoring strikes of five yards or less. That's just ridiculous. Yes, Tom Brady had 19, but that was less than 40 percent of his TD total. About 64
percent of Brees's TDs were those play-action
cheapies from the doorstep. Note that Brees performed well below average in other areas of the
red zone, as his receiving corps lacks the run-after-catch ability needed to convert from further out.
In 2006, Brees made his living scoring from
a distance – 14 TD passes on 52 attempts on
passes traveling more than 20 air yards from
scrimmage. Last year, predictably, that number
declined to five in 45 attempts.
Brees remains a yardage horse, with more than
4,400 passing each of the last two seasons. Only
Tom Brady had more passing yards last year; but
Brees is the preseason favorite to lead the league
in that category. We noted his earth-shattering attempts total, but even 100 less will do, and that's the floor, as he also led the league by a mile in throwing on first down: 267 attempts. And this wasn't merely a product of the Saints poor record, as they threw more than 60 percent of the
time on first down in both the first and second
quarters of all games. This is a hyper-aggressive
passing offense no matter what the score. And
that's what makes Brees money in the bank for
Brees was very good last year. And he might be good again. But in this case, it’s wise to bet on a regression to his career norms.
For starters, we don’t imagine Brees is going to go 5-for-5 on passes more than 40 yards from scrimmage again with three TDs. Or throw 14 TD passes in just 52 attempts more than 20 yards from scrimmage. He’ll have to pick up those lost TD passes inside the 10, but he was inefficient here with just eight TDs in 37 attempts. The good QBs convert about 40 percent of these throws into TDs, not 22 percent.
Brees did perform well in pressure situations last year when games were close in the fourth quarter and during the last two minute of halves. But he’s not Joe Montana Jr. in the clutch – witness his struggles in these areas in 2005. Despite the long-ball theatrics last year, Brees threw almost as many passes behind the line of scrimmage (131) as he did over 10 yards (146).
We’d also prefer if Brees had a solid veteran presence to stablize these inexperienced receivers. Will Marques Colston deal with the extra attention from secondaries? Don’t expect rookie Robert Meachem to have the kind of impact Colston had last year despite his status as a first-round pick.
Brees owners can feel good about the Saints aggressiveness in the first half of games, when they threw on 58 percent of plays. But a lot of these plays were extended handoffs. When you have Reggie Bush, special things can and do happen on short throws. But Bush only had a handful of plays over 15 yards, even with all those catches. And Brees was sacked at almost a Peyton Manning-like rate of just once every 31 attempts. So he’s a better bet than most to stay healthy.
You’re flying blind if you draft Brees. We don’t know enough about new head coach Sean Payton’s play-calling tendencies because his head coaches, Jim Fassel and Bill Parcells, had a heavy hand in his offenses. Brees is also coming off a major injury to his throwing shoulder, one severe enough to cause the Chargers and Dolphins both to pass on him last February. On the plus side, Brees has a major receiving weapon in Reggie Bush. There are no linebackers and few safeties capable of covering Bush in space. It remains to be seen how Payton will exploit Bush’s skills and how defenses will respond. Typically, defenses blitz like mad in these situations to force the back to stay in to block. The Saints aren’t going to have the luxury of allowing Brees to take shots, given his questionable shoulder. The other receivers are question marks, as the Saints reportedly shopped Donte Stallworth pre-draft and Joe Horn is 34. Besides the injury, the major bad news with Brees last year was his regression under pressure, as he had a terrible 42 QB rating on 61 close/late throws. But that may have been a fluke because he registered a 117 rating on close/late throws in 2004. Either way, his ability to play under do-or-die pressure is at least questionable. The arm strength is good enough, but his health will be the biggest question mark heading into the season.
With one foot in the NFL grave, Brees got the break he needed when Phillip Rivers held out last summer, and he rode it all the way to an AFC West title, a Pro Bowl and an $8 million franchise-tender offer. Brees threw 27 touchdowns last season and ran for two more, despite missing the season finale against the Chiefs. (Just think how many more touchdowns Brees would have had against that defense if the Chargers had needed the win.) And Brees threw just seven picks and took only 18 sacks all year while averaging 7.9 yards per passing attempt. In other words, when Brees went back to pass, good things typically happened for the Chargers.
On the downside, Brees doesn’t have a great arm, and while he’s an accurate passer, he’s not much of a deep-ball thrower. Moreover, his receiving corps lacks a big-time star, (unless you count tight end Antonio Gates), the Chargers are coached by Marty Schottenheimer, who loves power football, and the team has a first-rate tailback and a good defense. As such, Brees isn’t going to be asked to put the team on his slight-by-NFL-standards shoulders very often, so aside from the four games against the Raiders and Chiefs, temper your expectations.
Brees might hold his job through September so that Philip Rivers can ease into the starting role he's likely to hold well into the next decade. Brees combines a lack of height with a lack of accuracy (17 percent of his throws misfired last year) and thus has no NFL future.
There's no doubting that Brees is a talented, smart young quarterback, but it's unlikely his fantasy value is going to take off in the current Charger offense, even with new receiver David Boston in town. So long as Marty Schottenheimer is head coach and LaDainian Tomlinson is healthy in the backfield, look for San Diego to run first, ask questions later. That said, Brees will have value in most leagues if he can at least duplicate what he did last year (3,284 yards passing, 17 touchdowns), and we give him a fair chance to accomplish that. Brees had minor surgery in April to remove calcium deposits from his lower right leg, but he should by fine by the start of training camp.