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From 2001 to now: Vick, Brees and their wildly divergent NFL careers

As Drew Brees and Michael Vick embark on their 15th seasons in the NFL, Don Banks looks back on how wildly different their NFL career paths have been, and how nobody could have predicted that.

Fifteen seasons later, the order has been reversed. The first two quarterbacks selected in the 2001 NFL draft are the only two quarterbacks from that class still playing in the league, but that’s about all Michael Vick and Drew Brees have in common these days. Even though things started off so differently.

Vick, the heralded No. 1 overall pick in 2001, is back in the league, but just barely, having been signed off the street by Pittsburgh this week as a backup option behind Ben Roethlisberger. It took an injury to regular Steelers No. 2 quarterback Bruce Gradkowski ​last week to even give Vick this much of an opportunity in late August.

And then there’s Brees, the much-less-acclaimed first pick of the second round that year, and the quarterback the San Diego Chargers settled for after trading the No. 1 slot and the rights to Vick to Atlanta in a pre-draft blockbuster. While Vick tries to quickly acclimate to his fourth NFL team, and prolong his career as Big Ben’s understudy, Brees is quietly rolling into the 10th season of his remarkable and record-breaking run in New Orleans, for a Saints team and a storm-ravaged city he helped resurrect in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A decade on, as the 10th anniversary of Katrina arrives, Brees is still there, still starring and being saluted once again for the role he played in the city’s healing and restoration.

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Juxtaposed against each other, what wildly divergent career paths Vick and Brees have traveled. And who knew the guy with the S on his chest would wind up being Brees, and not Vick, whose dual-threat skills we were breathlessly told would redefine the quarterback position in the NFL and how it would be played?

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As beloved as any athlete has ever been in New Orleans, Brees remains royalty in the Big Easy. Vick? With his dog-fighting past still following him like a ball and chain, Vick is beloved nowhere in the NFL, and his arrival to a new team continues to spark protests and controversy, as it did again this week in Pittsburgh. For some, his will be a crime that can not be forgiven or forgotten, with no terms of penance available.

Brees at 36 remains one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks; he’s still making big money, still the face of his franchise, and still leading a team with Super Bowl potential. Vick at 35 is just hanging on, no longer considered starting material, and has been given up on by two teams in the past two years, a list that could grow to three should the Steelers decide to live without him.

Proving once again how much we don’t know about the NFL draft, and how little we can really project about quarterbacking talent and potential, it wasn’t supposed to be like this for either of these veteran quarterbacks.

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Coming out of Purdue, Brees was seen as just a very good college quarterback who would never be great in the NFL. Too short to see over his offensive line. Not a big enough arm. Not enough of the “it” factor. Even when he enjoyed early NFL success in San Diego, the Chargers opted to deal for Philip Rivers three years into his tenure, eventually letting Brees go in free agency after he suffered what looked to be a career-threatening shoulder injury late in the 2005 season. Then that football savant of all football savants, Nick Saban, passed on him in Miami in favor of signing Daunte Culpepper. Brees instead landed in New Orleans, which in early 2006 was as desperate a situation as the NFL had seen in many years. After playing the entire 2005 season on the road—in San Antonio and elsewhere—the Saints were a rudder-less fixer-upper of a franchise.

Vick on the other hand hit the NFL in 2001 with the greatest of fanfare and expectations out of Virginia Tech, dazzling everyone with his freakish athleticism and a left arm strong enough to play in a wind tunnel. He could run and throw like nobody we’d ever seen—Steve Young included—and he almost instantly became the new face of the NFL, with a marquee name and a style of game that the media couldn’t get enough of. For about five years there, ESPN and VICK became four-letter words that were practically synonymous.

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But Vick, for all his obvious gifts, never remotely mastered the art of playing quarterback in the NFL, admitting he didn’t exhibit the necessary work ethic during his time in Atlanta, and falling into bad habits with his over-reliance on his athleticism and his cannon arm. While Brees overcame his literal shortcomings, never letting his lack of prototypical height stand in the way of getting the job done, Vick struggled to stay healthy and elevate his game to an elite level.

Brees became known for his over-achievement. Vick more so for his over-exposure. And if you were playing that popular parlor game known as re-picking the draft, it’s a no-brainer as to which 2001 quarterback you’d take first. History has proven that without a doubt.

Vick’s downfall due to the dogfighting scandal led to prison time, and then his meteor-like career resurgence that was his 2010 season in Philadelphia. But he eventually played his way out of the starting job with the Eagles and was reduced to backing up the unproven Geno Smith with the Jets in 2014. Now a newly minted Steeler, likely presented with his last shot in the NFL, the stark reality is he has never remotely lived up to the hype or his potential—at least not in a sustained fashion—and has never known the game’s ultimate success.

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While Brees earned that cherished Super Bowl ring with the Saints and has led New Orleans to five playoff berths, becoming a civic icon, Vick’s career highlight was way back in 2002, when he helped the Falcons to a dramatic upset victory at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field in the NFC divisional playoffs. Vick has played in just one conference title game, with the 2004 Falcons, and lost it decisively, winning just two of his five career postseason starts.

That wasn’t the way we thought the story would go. Way back in 2001, which quarterback would you have plugged Canton into the GPS—Vick or Brees? Vick, whose talents were singular, isn’t going to make that trip. But the prolific Brees, who redefined what a “short” quarterback can accomplish, is well on his way to the Hall of Fame.

Both are still standing, still playing, albeit at very different levels in their careers. But 15 seasons later, a fresh look at Vick and Brees—two quarterbacks linked in draft history—shows how much time and perspective can change.