'Special connection': Drew Brees' receivers reveal 18 years of greatness

Brees credits everyone around him for NFL success (2:34)

Drew Brees sits with Jason Witten to reflect on his career, from leaving the Chargers for the Saints and being on the verge of an NFL record. (2:34)

Marques Colston has caught more passes from Drew Brees than anyone. But as he reflected on those 706 catches for 9,709 yards and 72 touchdowns, the former New Orleans Saints receiver laughed at how many of them he never actually saw leaving Brees' hand.

"Most of the intermediate routes, I would just see the ball come out of a pile of folks," Colston said of Brees, who became the NFL's all-time leader in passing yards Monday night against the Washington Redskins to surpass Peyton Manning. "And that's just time on task, man. There's no other way to really explain it. I mean, that's probably hundreds if not thousands of reps, me seeing the defense the way he's seeing the defense, being able to read body language.

"It was just a special, special connection."

Brees is the unlikeliest of greats -- a quarterback who stands just 6 feet tall, was barely recruited out of high school and fell to the second round of the NFL draft, where he began his career with the San Diego Chargers in 2001 and then joined the Saints in 2006.

But the way his receivers describe it, Brees has earned his way to 71,740 career passing yards through a combination of skill and desire, accuracy and character, uncanny vision and relentless work ethic.

ESPN spoke with 15 of Brees' pass-catchers for a collection of their fondest memories, including the years and his stats with the QB:

RB LaDainian Tomlinson, 2001-05

254 catches, 1,750 yards, 6 TDs

"I just think of his competitiveness and his ability to, I guess, always bounce back and never take no for an answer. Even those early years when it was tough on him and he was going through the Doug Flutie situation for a while [being benched three times], then it became the Philip Rivers situation, he always remained the same. He was consistent with the way he thought of himself -- like, 'I'm a top quarterback in this league, I'm a starting quarterback, I'm a Pro Bowl guy, I'm an All-Pro guy.' He always thought of himself like that. So that's what comes to my mind when I think of Drew Brees."

WR Keenan McCardell, 2004-05

97 catches, 1,255 yards, 9 TDs

"I got there right after Week 8 of the regular season, got traded there, and the first thing he wanted me to do was to get on the same page with him. We stayed after -- not just me, but everybody, and we made sure we got on the same page. He was unbelievably prepared all the time. We would stay after on Wednesdays and Thursdays. He bought dinner for us.

"I remember the first Wednesday that I got there, after practice he said, 'Keenan, let's play some catch afterwards.' He said, 'Just stay in front of me.' It was something like Michael Jordan where he closes his eyes and shoots the free throw. He closed his eyes and I was standing in front of him [10 yards away] and I'm like, 'What are you doing?' He said, 'Just stay there.' He said, 'I just want to try to feel where you are.' He said, 'You can step to the side and I'm just trying to feel.' ... I started laughing afterwards. I said, 'Drew, that's the first time I've ever seen somebody close their eyes and throw me the ball and hit me in between the 8 and 7.' He started laughing. After that, I realized you had somebody special."

TE Antonio Gates, 2004-05

180 catches, 2,279 yards, 23 TDs

"This particular moment was special for me, and special for the whole team (a 72-yard touchdown in the second quarter of a Week 15 win at Cleveland in 2004). He threw me like a bullet route, and it was the first time as a group that we won the AFC West. That was like a 10-year span where the Chargers hadn't been to the playoffs. It was super cold, and I remember him throwing that wheel route and how happy we were. He threw it, I caught it and I was gone.

"He just epitomized the quarterback position and what it means to be an All-Pro, just the way he always handled the ups and downs of his career."

WR Lance Moore, 2006-13

346 catches, 4,281 yards, 38 TDs

"The fact that he's a 10-, 12-, 15-year veteran, and after Saturday walk-through he goes into the indoor [practice facility] by himself and walks through the entire game plan leading up to the game -- most of the time in the dark, nobody in there with him, no playbook, it's all off of his head; that was the first time I ever saw anybody do that. And I can almost guarantee you he still does it to this day. So, there's a reason why he's great.

"I remember the first day that I was back from Birmingham [in 2006] after I got hurt in NFL Europe ... the very first day that I'm in this building, Drew walks up to me, introduces himself to me. And at first, I'm nervous because, like, 'This is Drew Brees,' you know. But then I'm like, 'Wow, this dude is awesome. I'm a young guy, never played in any games in the NFL, and he's going out of his way to introduce himself to me.' But I always tell people nowadays, as a great a player as he is, he's an even greater person, and takes the time and does the work."

WR Marques Colston, 2006-15

706 catches, 9,709 yards, 72 TDs

"I think he's just somebody that understood everyone around him. And there's a memory I have of that first touchdown that we scored together. And what stood out to me was that he was more excited for me than I was for myself. Just watching the video, he ran and jumped on me. And for him to be that excited for a rookie in his first game, that just speaks volumes to who he is as a person and as a man.

"I think everyone in the building understood that he's hands down the best player in the organization, but you would never know it by the way he interacts with everyone around him and the way that he works and he grinds like he's a free agent trying to make the roster."

RB Reggie Bush, 2006-10

294 catches, 2,142 yards, 12 TDs

"Well, I'll tell you one thing he did I didn't like. It was when we played the Eagles in the playoff game [after the 2006 season], and he laid me out there to dry, and I got my head knocked off. And now every time an Eagles player tweets me, that's the first thing they bring up. 'Hey you remember this hit?' Of course, I remember the hit. But it's funny, because Drew's such a great player and such a great professional, on and off the field, and I remember that moment coming back into the huddle, he was like, 'Hey man, I'm sorry, bro. I'm really sorry.' And I felt bad for him because I knew it really affected him. But that's the kind of player he is. He's a competitor. He's one of the most competitive people I've ever been around."

RB Pierre Thomas, 2007-14

327 catches, 2,608 yards, 12 TDs

"I remember there was one throw, he was running off to the side, and he just shovel passed it to me, and I ran up the field and got the first down for him. I didn't think he was going to throw it to me, but he did. There was a few times he got me like that.

"It's his work ethic [that stands out]. The details he put in his game, day in, day out, during practice, after practice. He's trying to figure out what's more comfortable for the players. You know, everybody is different, everybody's unique, everybody has their own way of performing -- and he wants to make sure he works with that. The steps, how guys get out of cuts, how long does it take for certain guys, because everybody's not the same."

WR Robert Meachem, 2007-11, 2013-14

162 catches, 2,695 yards, 25 TDs

"I want to say a high school gave him access to a gym. We had morning workouts, and then about 12 or 1 o'clock, we would try to go to the school and play pickup basketball. And it was so funny, because we had a play where I actually got the ball, so I was the quarterback, I was the point guard. He had to go play another position. And he didn't like that. You know, he's used to being in control, so he didn't like that too much. He had to switch. ...

"He's a perfectionist, so pretty much everything we had to do, we were gonna do it over again after practice. Because if he didn't like where he placed the ball during practice, we were gonna have to redo it. So a lot of my touchdowns were long bombs, so his biggest things would be if he was short on one or if he overthrew me. Oh lord, he would have to redo that one because he'd be mad about it. But he was a perfectionist, and when we got in the game, it worked time after time."

RB Mark Ingram II, 2011-18

202 catches, 1,379 yards, 4 TDs

"He's just good people, man. You'd think because he's an elite all-time passing leader that he might feel entitled or held to a certain standard. But he's just one of the guys. He kicks it, hangs out, competes in the locker room, just has fun. That's what I love most about him.

"[His competitiveness comes out in every locker room game]. Oh, pingpong for sure. That one year when we had the [pingpong ranking] list going, I remember one time I must have beat him, and he wanted to keep playing until he could beat me. He kept coming back each day. And then one day, he got his swing going on the pingpong table and he was able to get me a couple days later. Even on the [mini-basketball] hoop, he wanted to play somebody left-handed. That's just him, man."

WR Kenny Stills, 2013-14

95 catches, 1,572 yards, 8 TDs

"The biggest thing I remember is how OCD he was about everything. He's a repetition guy. They've got to be perfect reps. We would run these routes until he felt like they were good to go for the game. ... I can remember him being super OCD about touching the line when we're doing certain drills, keeping his routine very similar every day; and when he got out of that routine, it would throw him off.

"At first, you think it's funny, but then you realize and see how much success he's had. You see how those things play a part in that and it becomes something you admire. That's something I've learned from him -- getting in that routine, sticking to it. And now I understand if you get off of that how that feels and how it affects my play. It's certainly something that rubbed off on me."

TE Benjamin Watson, 2013-15, 2018

121 catches, 1,277 yards, 10 TDs

"I'd say he's uncomfortably normal. He's a superstar, but you might see him and his wife and the kids shopping in Target. I remember I saw him in Target one time and I was like, 'Dude, you're Drew Brees. Why are you in Target? You don't have anybody to go to Target for you? You can't just walk around in Target. Do you have security with you?' No, he's just a normal guy walking around. He's coaching his kids in football. He's coming to my kids' birthday party. He's accessible. He's a very normal, approachable guy who is one of the best, if not the best, to play the position."

WR Brandin Cooks, 2014-16

208 catches, 2,782 yards, 20 TDs

"First thing I think of right away, so we both lived in Del Mar [California, in the offseason]. A long story, but I lived a couple doors down from him -- thanks to him, we'll just say that. And I remember on a bye week us going home. And you know, bye week, you think of like relax and recover, whatnot. But just being on that same page, we went to our back alley and we were playing long toss. We were probably out there for about an hour. And I think what makes him great is how accurate he is. And just thinking about that moment on how specific he was, even in the streets, on where he wanted to put the ball made me realize that this guy takes every little detail into account and that makes him special. And he's an even better person."

RB Adrian Peterson, 2017

2 catches, 4 yards

"Oh man, his work ethic. He's extremely smart, great leader. Being around him, hands down he's the best quarterback in the league to me. Aaron Rodgers is not far off, but I have to give it to Drew Brees because of the amount of time he's been in the league and he's still doing it at a high level. And being around him personally, I've seen how he works off the field, as well."

RB Alvin Kamara, 2017-18

116 catches, 1,162 yards, 6 TDs

"When I first got here, I had watched Drew a lot and I knew he was great. But when I got to practice, I just remembered when I finally caught a ball from him, he like literally throws the ball to your hands like you don't have no choice but to catch it. He's that good, he's that accurate. That's one thing that stuck with me and still sticks with me from the first time I had that interaction with him. It's still the same. Some of the throws he makes are crazy. Sometimes you might not think you're getting the ball, and he just throws it to your hands and, ooh, you got it."

WR Michael Thomas, 2016-18

238 catches, 2,827 yards, 17 TDs

"He's always on. Drew is always on. And when a guy's on, it's contagious -- whether it's the look in his eyes that you know he's on, whether it's the way he communicates with you or whether it's just how he's playing, like he's on fire. He loves football. He's an example of how you're supposed to play the position. He's always studying the game. So for a guy like me, it's contagious for me to have somebody like that. I always say it: Those guys keep you honest. If you want to be this, if you want to do this, if you want to go into games and be this consistent ... you look up to those guys.

"And another thing, he's a great dad. He's a great person, and he's a great dad. So for a guy who has [four] kids and loves his kids to be able to come here and still give it all to this organization, you kind of want to give back to a guy like that. You want to bring back as many wins as possible."

-- ESPN reporters Michael DiRocco, Eric D. Williams, Lindsey Thiry, Cameron Wolfe and John Keim contributed to this report.