I’ve always thought Brees did a really good job spreading the ball around, but recently a fellow fan gave his opinion that Brees… well, I’ll just quote it here:

“2.) Drew Brees has a habit of throwing to the same guy over and over again. He did it when he had Jimmy Graham. When Cooks and Fleener wasn’t catching the ball cause of bump and run coverage – he kept throwing to Snead. ”  — fellow die hard Saints fan

I’m not picking on my fellow fan, I just wanted to try to get to the facts as to which of us was right.  So often in the modern world (and probably was the case in the ancient world, too) perception does not match reality.  Is that the case here?  Let’s look at the data.  (All stats from pfref.com.)

I decided to test this by taking the receiver with the most receiving yards that year and dividing that by the quarterback’s passing yards to find out what percentage of his passing yardage went to his top target.  The lower that percentage, the better that quarterback is at spreading the ball around.  It’s not a perfect way of doing it, but it’s relatively easy to do.  (This is just a somewhat random sampling of some of the better quarterbacks, not an exhaustive list, and not necessarily the leaders in this stat.)

Quarterback (2016) Passing Yards Top Receiver Yards Percentage
Brees 5208 1173 0.2252304147
Prescott 3667 833 0.2271611672
Stafford 4377 1077 0.2460589445
Mariota 3426 945 0.2758318739
Rodgers 4428 1257 0.2838753388
Ryan 4944 1409 0.2849919094
Carr 3937 1153 0.2928625857
Brady 3554 1106 0.3111986494
Roethlisberger 3819 1284 0.3362136685
Luck 4240 1448 0.341509434
Brees 2011 5476 1310 0.2392257122
Brees 2012 5177 1154 0.2229090207
Brees 2013 5162 1215 0.2353738861
Brees 2014 4952 931 0.1880048465
Brees 2015 4870 1138 0.2336755647

What the above table shows is Brees is actually the best in the business at spreading the ball around.  His top receiver only accounted for 22.5% of his passing yards in 2016.  The only player who came close to that was Dak Prescott (but Dez Bryant was hampered by injuries) at 22.7%. (Beasley was actually their yardage leader.)

Note also at the bottom of the table I have Brees’ numbers from the previous 5 seasons, just in case 2016 was an aberration.  Even in Jimmy Graham’s biggest years (2011 and 2013) Brees was still only going to him for 23.5% and 23.9% of his passing yards.  Even in those years that percentage is below 24%, which none of the quarterbacks in the study in 2016 could match (except for Prescott, and Stafford comes close).

I only included a sampling of what I thought were the top quarterbacks in 2016.  It could be Rivers or Wilson or somebody else was even better than Brees at spreading the ball around, but the goal here was to see whether Brees was locking in on his top receiver too much, as opposed to whether he was the best in the business at spreading the ball around.  I think the sampling of quarterbacks used in this study is sufficient to show Brees has *not* been forcing the ball to his top receiver.

NFL percent of passing yardage to top target