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Drew Brees is easy choice for Saints' No. 1 player; debating his decline is harder

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Drew Brees is front-runner to be NFC South MVP

ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett explains why quarterback Drew Brees has the edge over Julio Jones and Cam Newton to be the MVP of the NFC South in 2015.

I've been ranking the top 20 New Orleans Saints players leading up to training camp, which kicks off today when players report to The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. At No. 1 is quarterback Drew Brees:

Deciding who should rank No. 1 on this list? That was easy.

But the question that seems to baffle NFL analysts and insiders is whether we're starting to see signs of decline from Brees at age 36.

Consider:

  • Last week, a panel of 35 NFL coaches and executives ranked Brees as the NFL's sixth-best QB in an ESPN survey that asked them to put quarterbacks into tiers. His rating was 1.49 -- almost exactly in the middle of Tier 1 and Tier 2.

  • Last month, Brees' peers dropped him from sixth to 30th in the NFL Network's annual ranking of the league's top 100 players, which is voted on by players.

  • The Saints drafted a potential successor/insurance plan, Garrett Grayson, in the third round -- the first time they've selected a quarterback before Round 7 in the Brees-Sean Payton era.

I still consider Brees to be a "Tier 1" quarterback. But none of us really know for sure, since Brees' 2014 season was so hard to judge.

Brees tied for the NFL lead with 4,952 passing yards and ranked second with a 69.2 completion percentage. But his turnovers (17 interceptions, three lost fumbles) were absolute killers -- often in close games as the Saints sunk to 7-9. Brees often tried to force things when the defense (ranked dead last in efficiency, according to ESPN Stats & Information) and offensive line faltered.

"One of the things that Drew has gotten in trouble with is trying to do too much," ESPN analyst and former NFL safety Brian Dawkins said. "You can see it, he's trying to do too much. The same thing with Peyton Manning (last season). I know you want to hit the home run right now, but you have to be patient."

I don't chalk that up to Brees' age, though -- and neither did Dawkins.

We've seen Brees cough up 20-plus turnovers under similar circumstances in 2007, 2010 and 2012. He has always had more of that Brett Favre-gunslinger mentality than people realize -- something ESPN scouting analyst Matt Williamson stressed.

"(Brees') demise has been exaggerated, but I do think there is a demise," Williamson said. "I don't think he's playing at a Hall of Fame level anymore. But if that's the worst thing you can say about a guy, that's not so terrible.

"I do think his supporting cast has been a little suspect, especially his protection. And he's always been more of a risk-taker than I think people realize. I think he gets a reputation of, 'He's a smart guy that's an overachiever because he's short and he never makes mistakes.' But he throws a lot of bad balls, a lot of bad decisions. And sometimes it's because his defense let up 40 and he's trying to do anything he can to win. But I see more of those (lately).

"And I would say with declining physical assets, you get away with less with that mentality."

I wouldn't argue with any of that.

Neither would the Saints, who made it their mission to improve their defense and offensive line in a radical makeover, trading away Brees' top two pass-catchers, Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills, in the process.

The Saints figure Brees can still help them deliver a top-six offense, just as they've done in each of the past nine years -- as long as he gets enough protection in the middle of the pocket.

That was the hidden secret to the Saints' success in the glory years of 2009 and 2011, when guards Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks were playing at an All-Pro level. Over the past two years, Brees has suffered the two highest sack totals of his career (29 in 2014, 37 in 2013).

I don't think Brees or the Saints' offense will ever return to their peak of 2011. But they can play like they did in 2013, when Brees threw for 5,162 yards and 39 touchdowns with only 12 interceptions. The team went 11-5 and the defense ranked fourth in yards allowed.

Getting Brees back on track will require adjustments, however. He no longer has Graham as his go-to guy. Defenses also have done a great job of taking the big play away from the Saints in recent years.

Even with Graham, the Saints had only 52 pass plays of 20-plus yards last year, according to ESPN Stats & Info -- by far their lowest total since 2010.

"That's what you do to a quarterback who's been putting up the numbers of a Drew Brees," Dawkins said, pointing out tactics like blitzing the A gaps to clog Brees' favored lane up the middle and not biting on Brees' ball pats and pump fakes in deep coverage.

"If you're a defensive coordinator, you're like, 'You're not gonna beat us with this,'" Dawkins said. "'We're gonna make them do other things. We're gonna make them throw the ball short.'"

Dawkins said the loss of Darren Sproles last year hurt. Defenses would devote an extra safety or linebacker to spy Sproles when he ran passing routes -- something they didn't have to worry about in 2014.

The Saints could make up for that with another dynamic runner/receiver, C.J. Spiller, this year -- as well as exploiting the mismatch possibilities with lightning-quick receiver Brandin Cooks.

Dawkins did not rank Brees' arm strength as an issue -- and the numbers back him up.

Brees has actually been much more successful on throws that traveled 40-plus yards in the air from 2012-14 (15-of-35, seven TDs, zero interceptions) than he was from 2009-11 (7-of-35, three TDs, five interceptions).

"Obviously the accuracy (on deep throws is an issue) because he's throwing interceptions," Dawkins said, "whether that be from pressure on him, whether that be from rushing things, trying to make a play instead of waiting for the play to happen.

"But I haven't seen the arm-strength thing. I think he still throws a very catchable ball; he's always thrown a very catchable ball. I don't ever remember him having the John Elway type of arm."

There are more important factors. Heck, not even Elway had a "John Elway type of arm" when he finally won his first two Super Bowls -- at ages 37 and 38.