How does Drew Brees compare to the NFL's other most prolific passers?


Drew Brees is an 11-time Pro Bowler. He’s a two-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year. He’s a one-time Super Bowl champion. And, after Monday night’s 363-yard, three-touchdown performance against Washington, he’s the league’s most prolific quarterback.

So is it possible he’s underrated?

Brees’ greatness has come in the league’s friendliest era for passers, as relaxed rules make it more difficult to cover wide receivers while outlawing all but a few different techniques for sacking the quarterback. As a result, QBs are playing longer than ever, passing more than any generation before them, and ringing up outlandish statistics that were more likely to appear in a broken screen from an early John Madden Football game than an actual box score in 1992.

Brees was a product of that change, but he wasn’t alone. The new age of aerial fireworks has rewritten the league’s record books. Nine players have recorded at least 50,000 career passing yards in the NFL, including Brees’ all-time high of 72,103 (and counting). Five are still active, one retired in 2016, and another called it quits in 2011.

So how does Brees stack up against a group of peers that includes Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, and, uh, Eli Manning? Let’s break it down. And, just so we’re not missing anyone in that peer group, let’s throw Aaron Rodgers and Kurt Warner — a couple of contemporaries who earn own a pair of MVP awards — into the mix, too.

Statistically, Brees is the greatest passer of his generation

The Saints have continually turned to Brees to carry their offense with a daunting and occasionally overeager passing attack — and the veteran has been happy to oblige. After Monday, he now owns league records for both passing yards and completions and ranks in the top five in both passing touchdowns and QB rating. Over the next two seasons, he and Brady will be competing to eclipse Peyton Manning when it comes to finding the end zone.

Drew Brees and his contemporaries, traditional passing stats

QB Passing yards Rank Completions Rank TD passes Rank QB rating Rank Total ranking score
QB Passing yards Rank Completions Rank TD passes Rank QB rating Rank Total ranking score
Drew Brees 72,103 1 6,370 1 499 4 97.3 4 10
Peyton Manning 71,940 2 6,125 3 539 1 96.5 7 13
Tom Brady 67,418 4 5,750 4 500 3 97.5 3 14
Philip Rivers 51,843 8 4,293 8 355 6 95.4 8 30
Ben Roethlisberger 52,729 7 4,302 7 340 9 94 10 33
Brett Favre 71,838 3 6,300 2 508 2 86 29 36
Aaron Rodgers 40,074 20 3,319 19 323 10 103.7 1 50
Eli Manning 53,063 6 4,558 6 345 7 83.8 41 60
Kurt Warner 32,344 40 2,666 39 208 37 93.7 12 128

But Brees hasn’t been recognized when it comes to major awards like his peers

When it comes to recognition, Brees’ lack of regular season MVP awards leaves him lagging behind the cohort of Manning, Brady, and Favre. But he’s still been the league’s offensive player of the year twice, an award generally reserved for the guy MVP voters strongly considered before landing on someone slightly better. While Rodgers will probably surpass him on our totally scientific metric below in the next few seasons, he’s likely to hold onto his edge over Rivers, Roethlisberger, and Eli Manning (on top of beating out Hall of Famer Warner) when it comes to major accolades.

In order to form a rudimentary rankings system, here’s what we made the following worth:

  • regular season MVP = 5 points
  • offensive POY award = 4 points
  • Super Bowl MVP = 3 points
  • first-team All-Pro nod = 2 points
  • Pro Bowl invitation = 1 point

Drew Brees and his contemporaries, NFL year-end awards

Player Regular season MVPs Pts (x5) Off. Player of the Year Pts (x4) Super Bowl MVP Pts (x3) 1st tm All-Pro Pts (x2) Pro Bowl Pts (x1) Total pts
Player Regular season MVPs Pts (x5) Off. Player of the Year Pts (x4) Super Bowl MVP Pts (x3) 1st tm All-Pro Pts (x2) Pro Bowl Pts (x1) Total pts
Peyton Manning 5 25 2 8 1 3 7 14 14 14 64
Tom Brady 3 15 2 8 4 12 3 6 13 13 54
Brett Favre 3 15 1 4 0 0 3 6 11 11 36
Drew Brees 0 0 2 8 1 3 1 2 11 11 24
Aaron Rodgers 2 10 0 0 1 3 2 4 6 6 23
Kurt Warner 2 10 0 0 1 3 2 4 4 4 21
Eli Manning 0 0 0 0 2 6 0 0 4 4 10
Philip Rivers 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 7 7 7
Ben Roethlisberger 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 6 6 6

Brees got his Super Bowl win, but his postseason record falls short compared to his peers

For a quarterback to be truly great, his success has to result in team success. New Orleans’ sine wave of defensive performances over his career has prevented Brees from any kind of sustainable postseason presence, though the Saints are in strong position to make it two straight years in the playoffs after 2018’s 4-1 start.

Here’s where Brees’ lone NFL title and postseason record stack up against his colleagues. For argument’s sake, here’s our scoring:

  • Super Bowl win = 5 points
  • Super Bowl appearance = 3 points
  • division title = 2 points
  • playoff berth = 1 point

Drew Brees and his contemporaries, team success

Player Super Bowl wins Pts (x5) Conference titles Pts (x3) Division titles Pts (x2) Playoff berths Pts (x1) Total
Player Super Bowl wins Pts (x5) Conference titles Pts (x3) Division titles Pts (x2) Playoff berths Pts (x1) Total
Tom Brady 5 25 8 24 15 30 15 15 94
Peyton Manning 2 10 4 12 12 24 15 15 61
Ben Roethlisberger 2 10 3 9 7 14 10 10 43
Brett Favre 1 5 2 6 8 16 12 12 39
Eli Manning 2 10 2 6 3 6 6 6 28
Aaron Rodgers 1 5 1 3 5 10 8 8 26
Drew Brees 1 5 1 3 5 10 7 7 25
Kurt Warner 1 5 3 9 3 6 5 5 25
Philip Rivers 0 0 0 0 4 8 5 5 13

Brees produced big numbers despite a supporting cast that didn’t always measure up with the NFL’s elite

A good quarterback can thrive with great receivers. A great one can turn a lackluster receiving corps into a championship unit. Some of Brees’ peers have been lucky enough to be a part of lineups filled with star receivers. Peyton Manning could turn to sure-handed stars like Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, and Demaryius Thomas. Warner had the Greatest Show on Turf to fuel his rise in St. Louis, and then an in-his-prime Larry Fitzgerald for his revival in Arizona.

Brady, whose most-targeted trio in New England was the steadily productive grouping of Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and Julian Edelman (along with a three-plus season cameo from Randy Moss), lies somewhere in between. So does Brees, who built overlooked project receivers like Marques Colston, Lance Moore, and Jimmy Graham (his three most-targeted teammates) into 1,000-yard threats. 2,317 of his 5,245 completions in New Orleans have gone to players who were either drafted in the seventh round or not at all.

That lineup has gotten better over time — Brandin Cooks and Michael Thomas both developed into upper-tier wideouts after being selected by the club in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft — but Brees has been a dependable developer of talent who gave his team the latitude to address other areas of need in the draft and in free agency. In terms of receivers around him, only Eli Manning, Rivers, and possibly Brady can claim fewer stars in his constellation of targets. There’s no doubt Brees wrung every ounce of talent from his teammates.

And few players have meant more to their franchise than Brees has to New Orleans

Brees didn’t start his career with the Saints, but he’s destined to finish it there as the most beloved player in franchise history. He’s won 123 games and counting with New Orleans. That’s two more games than the Saints won between their inception in 1967 up to 1990 — a span that covers 13 different starting quarterbacks.

Most importantly, he brought New Orleans its first NFL title by outdueling Peyton Manning in Super Bowl XLIV, gifting a rebuilding city a championship parade in the process.

With the exception of Brady, no one player in Brees’ stratosphere can claim that singular kind of identity that goes with his team. Peyton turned the Colts from also-ran to perennial contender, but his success in Denver diminished his link to the franchise. Eli’s up-and-down career has made him a sponge for equal amounts of praise and criticism in New York. Favre and Rodgers are locked in a “best ever” debate in Green Bay.

Rivers is a Chargers lifer, but is missing the top-level success that would make him a franchise legend. Roethlisberger has two fewer Super Bowl rings than Terry Bradshaw. Warner never played more than six seasons at a single stop.

So yeah, maybe Brees is somehow underappreciated for his career

Brees is a big-time talent whose gaudy numbers are often overlooked thanks to a sometimes underwhelming cast around him. The Saints, in their worst years, have been a defense-deficient team who relied on their veteran quarterback to carry them to shootout wins and wound up recording stat lines that look copied and pasted from a Texas Tech loss to Oklahoma. At their best, he’s been the kind of quarterback who’s led the league in completion percentage — something he’s done four times, all in 11+ win seasons.

In those prime years, Brees is the kind of player who turns late-round draftees, ignored prospects, and former basketball stars into game-breaking receivers downfield. For the past 13 years, he’s been making the Saints better and slowly marching into the history books in the process. On Monday, he added another NFL record to add to his resume — and another key argument that he belongs in the Brady-Manning debate when it comes to the best quarterback of his generation.

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