The player: Drew Brees, QB, Saints
The SI rank—Beller: No. 6 QB, No. 64 overall | Fitz: No. 6 QB, No. 73 overall
The consensus rank—No. 5 QB, No. 54 overall
You can’t tell the story of the NFL over the last 15 years without including Brees as a central character. If Peyton Manning and Tom Brady go down as this era’s kings, Brees will be one of its most celebrated knights. He may not have ruled, but he remains one of the fiercest warriors at the position and, for a brief time, held the throne.
If you’ve read anything I’ve written on Brees this summer, you can probably guess where I’m going next. The last time he was outside the top six at the quarterback position was 2005. That was the same year that, among other seemingly ancient events, Shaun Alexander ran for 1,880 yards and 27 touchdowns, winning the MVP for the 13-3 Seahawks. Cadillac Williams was the Offensive Rookie of the Year. Torry Holt had 102 receptions. Kerry Collins, Trent Green, Gus Frerotte, Drew Bledsoe, Mark Brunell, Jake Plummer and Aaron Brooks all started at least 13 games. Yeah, it was a while ago.
Brees has long been one of the most bankable commodities in the fantasy game, and, as any quarterback with his high-end longevity, he has done it with a rotating cast of characters. He made a star out of Marques Colston. He forged one of the most profitable quarterback-tight end relationships with Jimmy Graham. He made Lance Moore, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem relevant in fantasy leagues. After the Saints traded Graham before last season, Brees helped revive then 34-year-old Ben Watson’s career. No matter what the Saints put around Brees, he makes it work.
That’s good news for the 37-year-old quarterback, because he’s going to have to mix in two new pieces this season. Let’s start, however, with the holdovers. Brandin Cooks got off to a slow start last year, but ultimately made a leap, catching 84 passes for 1,138 yards and nine touchdowns. He returns as Brees’s No. 1 receiver and, while entering his third season, turns just 23 years old at the end of September. There’s a lot of growth in his future, both organically as he continues to progress toward his physical prime, and mentally as he continues to transition from youngster to veteran. Willie Snead turned in a solid rookie season, hauling in 69 passes for 984 yards and three scores.
Snead, however, could be pushed to the backburner this season. The Saints already made a big addition to their receiver room, drafting Ohio State product Michael Thomas in the second round. Thomas, a 6'3", 209-pound receiver, is a near-Colston clone, at least physically. He gives Brees the big-bodied target in the red zone every quarterback loves. The team is also considering bringing in veteran Anquan Boldin, who would curb Thomas's upside, but add to Brees's bottom line. Then there’s Coby Fleener, who is quickly becoming a darling of the fantasy community. Fleener could never quite shake Dwayne Allen’s shadow—nor Allen his—in Indianapolis. Freed from that timeshare and playing with Brees, Fleener is set to shine. He also gives Brees another vertical weapon, and one who can split the seam and give Cooks more room to work all over the field.
There is, however, one red flag waving next to Brees. To quote my partner Pat Fitzmaurice, “Peyton Manning was great until he wasn’t.” Now, to be fair, Manning had three neck surgeries in advance of his sudden, sharp downturn toward the end of the 2014 season, from which he was unable to recover, at least from a fantasy perspective. Brees suffered a torn labrum at the end of the 2005 season, but has had a clean bill of health since. He has missed one game due to injury during his 10 years with the Saints, and that sort of durability is a skill in the NFL.
Fantasy owners still cannot simply dismiss the fact that Brees is 37 years old and entering his 16th year in the league. Including the playoffs, he has thrown more than 8,500 passes in his career and taken 350 sacks. Just like growth patterns at the beginning of a player’s career aren’t always linear, neither are late-stage declines. Brees has had as clean a bill of health as is realistically possible in a 16-year NFL career, but the baseline of injury risk for a 37-year-old is higher than the average player, no matter his history. That’s something prospective Brees owners have to consider before tabbing him as their starting quarterback.
When an ambiguous, age-related injury concern is the only real knock against a player, however, you can feel pretty safe about selecting him at his average draft position. That goes doubly for a player like Brees, who has been a fantasy and real-life star since his No. 1 receiver was in seventh grade.
Brees doesn’t have the ceiling of Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson or Ben Roethlisberger. He does have the longest track record at the position, and quite possibly the safest floor of any quarterback in the league. Brees has been a top-six quarterback for 11 straight seasons. It would be a shock if he didn’t extend that streak to 12 this year.