Here's a question sure to draw a consensus response … with the benefit of hindsight, which 2001 draft pick would you stake the future of your club to, QB Michael Vick or RB LaDainian Tomlinson?
As he approaches his 11th season, Tomlinson is prepared to take over the No. 5 spot on the all-time rushing list, already having stepped over a dozen or more Hall of Fame backs. Vick's career has not gone without notice — four Pro Bowls in eight seasons — but his legacy is still being shaped as he enters the final phase of his career.
The two men will forever be linked by the trade that changed both of their futures — one of the biggest NFL draft trades in history (NFL Network selected it No. 6 all time). But if Tomlinson is the easy answer today, that was hardly the case back in 2001.
In April of that year, San Diego was a team in need of new blood under center. Its tentative plan heading into the fall was to ride 38-year-old Doug Flutie, but the club found itself in possession of the No. 1 pick and staring at a player many considered a "can't-miss prospect" — Virginia Tech's Vick. However, unable to come to terms with Vick before the draft, the Chargers instead chose to deal the pick to Atlanta for three selections and a player.
Blame San Diego's cold feet on QB Ryan Leaf.
It had only been three years since the Chargers gave away the farm to draft the second-best quarterback in the 1998 Draft. Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard predicted Leaf would match Peyton Manning as a pro — the legendary front-office executive couldn't have been more wrong. After suffering through locker-room temper tantrums and Leaf's 4-14 record as a starter, San Diego cut ties with Leaf and his $31.25 million contract following the 2000 NFL season.
Suddenly, no pick seemed safe to San Diego — and certainly nothing could be considered a sure thing.
San Diego began to shop the No. 1 pick, but few teams were able to provide the Chargers with what they were looking for. As former Falcons coach Dan Reeves once put it, "If you really looked at it, we were the most legitimate possibility to get a good trade for them."
In exchange for the right to pick Vick, Atlanta sent San Diego its first (No. 5) and third round (No. 67) picks, a second-round pick (No. 48) in the 2002 draft, and WR-RS Tim Dwight. With the picks the Chargers drafted Tomlinson, CB Tay Cody and WR Reche Caldwell. While Tomlinson has built a Hall of Fame resume, Cody and Caldwell accomplished very little (Cody started 11 games in three years, Caldwell averaged 19 receptions during his four years in San Diego). Dwight posted a career-best 50 receptions in 2002 but failed to make much of a mark beyond that.
At the time, most believed Atlanta was guilty of grand larceny. The Falcons had paid a small price for someone capable of revolutionizing the quarterback position. And Reeves knew first-hand how a quarterback could change a team's fortune; he'd been in Denver 18 years earlier when the Broncos shipped Baltimore a bundle of players/picks for the rights to the No. 1 overall pick in the 1983 Draft, John Elway.
Atlanta's front office was merely trying to recreate history.
"Like with Elway, it might be a little rough for a couple of years at the beginning," Atlanta general manager Harold Richardson told Sports Illustrated in April 2001. "But look at what he turned into for that franchise." Elway took Denver to five Super Bowls, winning two.
Ten years since the 2001 blockbuster deal, neither the Chargers nor Falcons have won a Super Bowl. Still, it's safe to say San Diego got the better end of the deal, and not just because Tomlinson's career has overshadowed Vick's.
After passing on Vick, the Chargers still needed to address their future at quarterback. The team again pinned its hopes on the draft's second-best quarterback prospect, only this time with a more favorable result than what Leaf provided. To scouts, Drew Brees lacked the qualities you hope to find in a high-round pick — ideal height, weight and arm strength. To San Diego, he seemed like a solid Plan B. For the past seven seasons Brees has put up elite quarterback numbers. He is one of just two quarterbacks in history to have passed for more than 5,000 yards in a season, and his 2009 season is arguably one of the finest ever by a passer.
Even though Brees was not technically part of the bounty for Vick, it's clear his selection was a result of the trade. Now history has bound him with Tomlinson, further tipping the scales in San Diego's favor.
But beyond identifying a winner and loser, this trade helped to dispel the theory that teams must take a franchise quarterback whenever one is on the board. Vick clearly was that in April 2001, yet San Diego general manager John Butler widened his vision and with one deal chartered a course of lasting success for the Chargers.
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Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010).