For a team with such a well-documented history of losing, the Detroit Lions have fielded a huge amount of talent since the organization was founded in Portsmouth, Ohio, in 1929.
The problem, really, is that the Lions never had all that talent on the team at the same time. You'll see that the talent on the Lions roster has been pretty well dispersed over the 80-plus years of Detroit Lions existence.
This accounts for an abundance of great players and an overall lack of great teams. But this isn't about lamenting historical failures, it's about appreciating some of the all-time greats, the best players ever to don Honolulu blue and silver—or even Portsmouth Spartan purple.
Some basic rules before you dive in. The headline of each slide is ordered as follows: number in countdown, player name, player position and years played with the Lions. I point this out specifically because a good number of the players on this list played with other teams as well. The dates listed are not their career dates, but the years they spent with the Lions.
I placed particular emphasis on legacy and longevity with the team. There are some players who could deserve to be higher on the list, but fell because they only spent four or five years with the Lions.
For many of the older, historical players, it's difficult to find quality images, so I tried to use something relevant—either footage from a game they played in, an award named for them, or something else loosely related to the player. Bear with me on this.
Finally, keep in mind that this is all subjective. I have spent a lot of time on this list and I stand by it, but it's subjective, which makes it impossible to be "right" about these things. If you think I'm crazy, let me know about it. These things are more conversation pieces than they are be-all-end-all sources of information, so let the conversation begin.
Oh dear, have I lost you already? Hopefully, you're not scared off by seeing an image of Joey Harrington on the first page of a list of the "top 50 Lions players."
It's the guy in the background we should talk about.
Different people will remember Backus' legacy differently, but the man was Matt Millen's first draft pick, and he overcame that hurdle to put together a solid career, despite numerous coaching changes, house cleanings, and a carousel of left guard partners, offensive systems and quarterbacks.
Backus helped the Lions shore up the left tackle position after largely wasted first-round draft picks on Aaron Gibson and Stockar McDougle, and the fact that tackle has been perceived as such a huge need in the wake of his retirement should finally show fans how important Backus has been to the Lions franchise over the last 12 years.
Backus was never a league great, but he was a rock through some of the bumpiest years in franchise history, and for that, he should be recognized.
Dre' Bly is kind of the opposite of Backus. A model of consistency, Bly was not.
Bly was a gambler, a cornerback that always went for the interception. That meant that Bly came up with a bunch of interceptions (19 in four years as a Lion), but also got burned for a bunch of touchdowns.
Still, Bly was a Pro Bowler for two of his four years as a Lion, and at the time of writing, remains the most recent Pro Bowl cornerback the Lions have fielded. Not only is Bly one of the best corners the Lions have had, but he likely falls in a top 10 of best free-agent signings. His first two years in Detroit were the best two years of his career.
Bennie Blades was a fixture in the Lions secondary for a good portion of the 1990s and made a reputation for himself as one of the more physical safeties in the game.
Blades only had one Pro Bowl season (in 1992), but he posted three seasons of 100-plus tackles, including a 131-tackle season in 1996, his final year with the team. He is second all time in career tackles with the Lions.
Tackles are a really bad stat to gauge success on, but it's appropriate for Blades, who spent much of his career in a Louis Delmas-style run-support role. And if that doesn't get it for you, he also returned two interceptions for 112 yards during that 1996 season.
Don Doll was one of the best defensive backs in Lions history, and to prove it, he still holds Lions records for passes intercepted in a season (12, in 1950), interception-return yardage in a season (301, in 1949) and passes intercepted in a single game (four, on Oct. 23, 1949 against the Chicago Bears).
So why is Doll not top-20 material? As great as Doll was, he played only four seasons in Detroit before being traded to Washington in 1953. Had he finished his career at the same place he'd started it in Detroit, he'd likely be in the top 10.
But four seasons—even four great seasons—makes him more of a shooting star than anything.
Jumping the gun on this? Yeah, maybe. Especially after dropping Don Doll down the list as a result of spending too little time with the team, it's probably too early to deem Suh one of the greatest players in Lions history, but there's some narrative to go along with his great play.
Suh hasn't only been a force in the middle of the Lions defense, he has helped change the image and mindset of the team. Some might suggest it has been a change for the worse, but going from a league laughingstock to feared and despised is a move in the right direction.
Suh hasn't been the only instrument in "changing the culture," but he has been one of the most productive. At his current rate, he will be third in sacks for the Lions all time in another six years.
The Lions do not have a particularly robust history of tight end play, with the exception of one player (to be named later). But David Sloan, while never flashy, played seven years with the Lions, and was a Pro Bowler in 1999, his best receiving year.
Sloan wasn't ever really a primary receiving target, but his work as a blocker helped Barry Sanders to some of his best seasons in the late 1990s. It's no surprise that his Pro Bowl year, 1999, coincided with the year Sanders retired, which gave him a chance for more touches.
Sloan's receiving numbers increased significantly in the wake of Sanders' absence, but his legacy lies more in paving the way for the rushing game for the first half of his career.
Because punters are people too, Jim Arnold deserves a mention here.
Arguably the best pure punter in Lions history, Arnold holds the franchise record for net punting average in a season by a full yard, and played for the Lions for eight seasons, including two consecutive Pro Bowl appearances in 1987 and 1988.
Arnold isn't the greatest overall punter in Lions history but the one who beats him out has a pretty impressive resume, so there's no shame in being second-best in this instance.
I was torn on whether to give this spot to Elliss, or his longtime linemate, Tracy Scroggins.
I ultimately decided on Elliss on account of being a fan favorite, and his 1999 and 2000 Pro Bowl seasons.
"Pass Rushin'" Luther Elliss actually only notched 29 career sacks, but he was a force for the Lions in a DE/DT tweener role not unlike what Andre Fluellen had for the Lions in more recent years.
Though he isn't one of the most productive players in Lions history, he was one of the best-loved and most consistent, playing in 14 or more games every year of his career except 2003, his last season in Detroit.
Terry Barr, in addition to being a great Lions receiver, was one of the more notable characters in George Plimpton's classic Paper Lion (hence the choice of footage here).
Despite playing in an era in which the passing game was a secondary concern, Barr managed to post big numbers—even by today's standards, despite joining the team just at the end of legendary Bobby Layne's tenure.
Barr still sits tied for third in franchise history in all-time receiving touchdowns (35) and fourth in touchdowns in a season (13, in 1963).
Mel Farr is fourth in Lions history in career rushing touchdowns, behind three other people further up on this list.
He played seven years with the Lions, making two Pro Bowls and an All-Pro team in that time frame. He also won the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year Award in 1967.
While never quite a dominating force, Farr was a solid starter who averaged 4.2 yards per carry over his career and was equally a dangerous force as a receiver.
John Gordy is one of the best interior linemen of the 1960s, and he spent his entire 11-year career as a Lion.
Gordy was well-known as an effective pulling guard and made three Pro Bowls in his career as a Lion. Though Gordy's career spanned 11 years, he actually left the game in 1958 in pursuit of a coaching position at Nebraska, but he returned to the game in 1959 and made a great career out of it.
Too early again?
Not at all.
In this case, Stafford could retire tomorrow and still deserve this spot. He is second on the list of career passing yards and will almost assuredly eclipse that mark by the end of his rookie contract.
Though the Lions have not been a bastion of quarterback talent over the course of their history, Stafford has been one of the franchise's best, despite only having started 45 career games. But the fact that he has so little playing experience, yet either owns or is within striking distance of every major franchise passing record is exactly why he deserves this spot.
Realistically, Stafford probably deserves to be even higher on this list, but I'm going to leave him some growth room as his legacy gets bigger and bigger over time.
One of the most dominant middle linebackers of his era, the only reason Stephen Boyd sits this low on the list is because his body couldn't hold up against the savage punishment he doled out game after game.
Boyd was an absolute tackling machine for the Lions. Despite only starting for six years before a chronic back injury prematurely ended his career, Boyd is the third all-time leading tackler in Lions history, thanks to a collection of 19-tackle games, and seasons in which he posted 192 (1997) and 184 (1999) tackles.
Boyd played backup to legend Chris Spielman as a rookie, but was so promising, the Lions opted to trade Spielman to the Buffalo Bills and go with Boyd as starter. Had it not been for injury, Boyd's legacy could have become even greater than Spielman's.
Nick Pietrosante has an award named after him at Notre Dame, given to the player best exhibiting the qualities of "courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication, and pride," according to ESPN.
But more importantly, Pietrosante was a very good fullback in Detroit, one who still stands at third in rushing touchdowns in franchise history with 28.
Pietrosante finished his Lions career with a very respectable 4.2 yard rushing average despite being listed as a fullback. He set a then-franchise record for single-season rushing yards in 1960 with 872 and almost eclipsed his own mark in 1961 with 841 yards.
Doug English is considered the Lions' all-time leader in sacks for interior defensive linemen with 59. He posted 13 in the Lions' 1983 season, good for sixth all time in a single season.
Part of the Lions' vaunted "Silver Rush," English terrorized quarterbacks throughout his career, notching four sacks in a game twice, as part of one of the best defensive fronts in Lions history.
English was a four-time Pro Bowler, with three of those nominations coming after he took the 1980 season off to try his hand in the oil industry.
Murray kicked for the Lions for about 10 years, and then every other team for the next 10.
With the exception of a stint in 2011 in which Jason Hanson was injured, the Detroit Lions have fielded all of two place-kickers since 1980.
"Steady" Eddie Murray was the lesser of the two players, but compared to the third-leading scorer in NFL history, that's nothing to be ashamed of.
Murray was a great kicker in his own right, and while he doesn't compare to the thunder-footed superhuman that is Jason Hanson, he comes in second in basically every single meaningful category for kickers in Lions history.
When a team has a highly effective rushing attack, it is customary to credit the interior linemen.
Harley Sewell was the left guard for the Lions during the Pro Bowl campaigns of Doak Walker and Nick Pietrosante, and he played an integral role in three of the Lions' four championship games during the 1950s (including their wins in 1953 and 1957).
There is still no reliable way to quantify offensive line play, especially interior line play. But just know that Sewell got his jersey dirty for some of the most effective offenses in Lions history, and that's no coincidence.
Also, no, I don't know why all the pictures are cut off in this Harley Sewell tribute video/slideshow.
One of the more unheralded heroes of the Lions' "Run and Shoot" offense from the 1990s, Brett Perriman was the epitome of what the Lions would love to have today: a reliable No. 2 receiver.
Perriman doesn't exactly have his name printed all over the Lions record books, but he has a couple of claims to fame. His 108 receptions for 1,488 yards in 1995 are good for third and fourth in those respective single-season categories.
Perriman may have been the third-best receiver on the Lions squad when he played there, but he was a productive and integral part of the offense regardless.
The two things Wayne Walker will be best remembered for are his versatility (he played both linebacker and place-kicker, of all things) and his longevity with the Lions (his 200 games with the Lions is second only to Jason Hanson).
Walker was a three-time Pro Bowler who, oddly enough, led the team in scoring in 1962, 1964 and 1965, then went on to be the Lions' defensive MVP in 1968. He is still seventh in scoring in Lions history, with his numbers including 53 field goals, 172 PATs, and two touchdowns—on an interception return and a fumble return.
As with most offensive linemen, we measure Flanagan's success by the success of the offense around him.
And Flanagan played in front of some very good offenses. He entered the starting lineup as a rookie and made four Pro Bowls, the most by a center in Lions history. He blocked for Mel Farr over his entire career, and was a huge part of the Lions' 2,376-yard rushing attack in 1971.
Flanagan's blocking helped facilitate the first 1,000-yard rusher in Lions history (Steve Owens, in 1971), and was voted a team captain every year from 1969 until his retirement after the 1974 season.
An admittedly sentimental choice, Cory Schlesinger's value to the Lions is not measured in terms of stats (unless you're talking about number of face masks broken, which is said to be over 200, or more than one per game).
Schlesinger's value was that of a gritty tough guy and elite lead blocker. He will perhaps be best remembered for his days playing with Barry Sanders, but he was also an effective short-yardage back, blocking fullback and special teams player for the majority of his career after Sanders' retirement.
Schlesinger never made a Pro Bowl, though he was voted an alternate three times. However, his teammates appreciated his play so much that despite a lack of statistical prowess, he was voted the Lions' offensive MVP in 2003.
When Gail Cogdill retired from the Lions in 1968, he was the franchise leader in receptions and receiving yards.
He now stands at sixth and fourth in those statistics, respectively, and remains one of the best to ever play. Though the Lions found themselves in a state of quarterback flux after the infamous Bobby Layne trade in 1957, Cogdill came in and simply produced every year, regardless of who was slinging the ball around.
Though his numbers fell off over his last three professional seasons, Cogdill was a Pro Bowler in three of his first five seasons, catching between 43 and 53 passes every season in that stretch.
One of the best (perhaps most underrated) defensive ends of his time, three-time Pro Bowler Robert Porcher is, to this day, the Lions' far-and-away leader in career sacks with 95.5
Porcher spent his entire 13-season career with the Lions and notched double-digit sacks in four consecutive seasons (1996-1999), including an impressive 15 sacks in 1999 (fourth-most in franchise history).
A consistent and productive starter, Porcher was consistently explosive throughout most of his career in Detroit, and despite the fact that the 1990s Lions are best known for their offense, Porcher helped create what was also a great defensive front.
It is impossible (or at best, improper) to talk about the high-flying Lions offenses of the 1990s without talking about Kevin Glover, the first man to touch the ball on almost every Barry Sanders rush and Herman Moore catch until 1997.
Glover paved the way for Sanders for the majority of his career, and while the rest of the offensive line was occasionally a patchwork unit, Glover got the job done. With Glover at center, Sanders was the winner of the NFL rushing title on four different occasions.
An absolute model of consistency, Glover played for 13 seasons with the Lions, ending his career with three consecutive Pro Bowl nominations. His 171 games played with Detroit is sixth all time.
Jim David should go down as the biggest draft steal in Detroit Lions history.
"The Hatchet," so named because he injured future Hall of Famers Y.A. Tittle and Tom Fears in consecutive games despite weighing just over 170 pounds, was one of the few players to be with the Lions for all three of their NFL championships in the 1950s.
The clip here is of a key interception by David in the 1952 championship game, which the Lions eventually won 17-7. In fact, David posted an interception in all three of the Lions' NFL Championship wins during his tenure.
David doesn't hold any all-time records with the team, but he is still sixth in career interceptions, and was a great all-around defender and solid tackler despite his diminutive stature.
And all this from a 22nd-round draft pick out of Colorado A&M.
Although Matthew Stafford is likely on the verge of it, Greg Landry's Pro Bowl season in 1971 remains the most recent Pro Bowl season for a Lions quarterback.
That was the only Pro Bowl season of Landry's career, but he spent 11 years with the team, and he is remembered as one of the best quarterbacks in franchise history, sad as that is.
Landry was never on that elite tier of quarterbacks, but his longevity, and the looming reality that there has theoretically not been a Lions quarterback as good as Landry in 40 years, solidifies his status as one of the all-time best in franchise history.
Lomas Brown, being an offensive lineman, is largely remembered not for his own accomplishments, but for those around him.
Brown was a six-time Pro Bowler while paving the way for Barry Sanders over seven seasons and was a fine pass-protector in his own right. Of course, no offensive lineman who played with the Lions in the 1990s will be remembered for pass protection, because the rushing attack was great, and the pass game was mostly awful.
But Brown should get some credit for helping facilitate Scott Mitchell's 4,338-yard passing season in 1995, especially since Mitchell was a statue in the pocket.
Speaking of the Lions passing game in the 1990s, Johnnie Morton was awesome.
Morton often gets thrown into the "beneficiary of other offensive targets" category, but the last few years should shed some light on how valuable Morton truly was to the team. The Lions have been looking for a true No. 2 complement to Calvin Johnson for five years, with very little success. How much would they love to have a Johnnie Morton on the team right now?
Morton averaged over 1,000 yards receiving between 1997 and 2001, despite never being the Lions' first target. The Lions have spent lots of money and draft picks trying to find the next Morton, and it hasn't happened yet, because he was a special player.
Alex Wojciechowicz, whose name I will probably never be able to spell without looking it up, excelled in the era of the two-way player.
He played center, where he was known for his unusually wide snapping stance, and also outside linebacker, where he set a franchise record for interceptions in a season with seven.
The fact that he was equally well-known at both positions just goes to show how good he was at both.
Being inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1968 helps, too.
The Lions have a number of records related to tackling on the books, and Chris Spielman owns almost all of them.
He leads the franchise by a wide margin in career tackles with 1,138 (Bennie Blades is second with 815), as well as in single-season tackles with 195. He flew around from the center point of the Lions defense for eight years, making four Pro Bowls in that time frame.
The only reason Spielman's Lions career didn't last longer is because the Lions struck gold with Stephen Boyd in 1995 and decided to trade Spielman while his value was high.
Despite only being a Lion for six years, Mel Gray is—statistically—the greatest return specialist ever to don the Honolulu blue.
Almost 20 years after his Lions career ended, Gray still holds franchise records in career kickoff returns (216), career kickoff return yards (5,478), career kickoff returns for touchdowns (five), most kickoff returns for touchdowns in a season (three, in 1994), highest kickoff return average in a season (28.36, in 1994) and career punt-return yards (1,427).
A four-time Pro Bowler as a Lion, Gray never really did anything other than return kicks, but considering how good he was at it, there's little reason for anyone to have asked him to.
Baker (right) also played for the St. Louis Cardinals (before the move to Arizona) Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings.
The only reason "Bubba" Baker isn't a top-10 all-time player for the Lions is because he spent only five seasons with the Lions.
However, despite that, Baker is one of the most feared pass-rushers to ever play in Detroit. Not only is he second on the Lions' all-time sacks list with 75.5 (behind only Robert Porcher, whose Lions career was more than twice as long), but he is responsible for each of the Lions' top three seasons in terms of sack totals.
Baker notched 23 sacks in his rookie year in 1978, then 16 more in 1979 and 18 in 1980. Nobody has since touched any of those single-season marks. Unsurprisingly, each of those seasons led to a Pro Bowl for Baker.
Roger Brown is the all-time leader in Pro Bowl trips for a defensive lineman as a Lion with five. He played in an era that didn't keep sacks as an official stat, otherwise he would likely have been one of the team leaders in getting after the quarterback.
Brown weighed in at over 300 pounds, making him one of the first players to maintain that size in the NFL, but he isn't known for raw power as much as he is quickness and agility. Brown isn't known especially well individually, since he played most of his career alongside Alex Karras and didn't finish his career in Detroit.
Still, Brown's production and talents anchoring the middle of the defensive line equally matched that of Karras, making them perhaps the most feared defensive tackle tandem of their era.
Charlie Sanders is unequivocally the greatest tight end in Detroit Lions history, and he arguably helped change the way the position was played.
Not content to just be a sixth offensive lineman, as most tight ends were in his era, Sanders was a legitimate receiving target who posted 4,817 receiving yards and 31 touchdowns (still seventh in Lions history) over his 10-year career.
And he still found time to be a hard-nosed, mauling blocker.
Sanders made seven Pro Bowls in his 10 years, but more notably, he became the seventh tight end ever enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2007.
I will never get tired of the Billy Sims "karate kick" clip. It may well be one of the greatest single plays in Lions history, at least in terms of general enjoyment to watch.
But more than just that one clip, Sims was also the third-greatest running back in Lions history and is second on the career rushing yards list.
Perhaps the only reason Sims isn't in the conversation for the greatest Lions running back of all time is because his career was cut short by injury after five years.
The stats won't show it, but Hall of Famer and six-time All-Pro Dutch Clark was the first great Lions quarterback.
He led the Lions to their first NFL championship in 1935 and is the only player on this list to have once been a Portsmouth Spartan.
To show how the game has evolved over the years, Clark finished his career with a 11-26 TD-INT ratio and with 1,507 passing yards. In the Lions championship season of 1935, Clark finished the season going 11-of-26 passing with 133 passing yards and two touchdowns, but he led the team with 427 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
Clark served as player-coach of the Lions for the 1937 and 1938 seasons, because that was a thing that happened back then.
Arguably the greatest offensive lineman in Lions history, Lou Creekmur is one of those few players who helped the Lions to all three of their championships in the 1950s.
Creekmur played at both guard and tackle in his career, and even spent a season filling in at defensive tackle in 1955 as well as in short-yardage situations throughout his career.
Even with his positional versatility, Creekmur was an eight-time Pro Bowler, and his career of pushing people around in front of Doak Walker and Bobby Layne landed him in the Hall of Fame.
As a player, LeBeau developed a reputation as a ball hawk and an iron man. His 72 career interceptions are a Lions franchise record and are seventh in NFL history. His 14 seasons played are third-most in Lions history, and he also holds the NFL record for consecutive games played by a cornerback with 171.
The only way LeBeau could be a more significant figure in Lions history is if he was putting his brilliant coaching mind to work for the Lions rather than the Steelers.
Yale Lary is perhaps simultaneously the greatest punter and punt returner in Lions history. And if that wasn't enough, he was also a Pro Bowl-caliber safety.
Lary is not only third on the Lions' list of career interceptions but was also a great punter, allowing less than one yard per punt return in 1960 and winning the punting title in three other years.
Lary made nine Pro Bowls in his career (every year except his rookie season and his penultimate one), His body of work put him in the Hall of Fame, which is even more impressive when you consider that he took the 1954 and 1955 seasons off to do a tour in the Army.
What can be said about Jason Hanson? He owns every single place-kicking record in Lions history, a bunch more NFL records (career field goals over 50 yards, for instance) and a cozy third-place spot on the NFL's all-time scoring list.
Nobody has ever played more games than Hanson for a single NFL franchise, and he ended his career as one of the longest-tenured athletes in any team sport's history.
"Night Train" Lane was a great defensive back, who, to this day, is one of the the best pass defenders in history.
But what people will remember of Lane is his vicious tackling. If Lane played today, chances are he would end up owing the league his entire salary. His signature move, the "Night Train Necktie," combined a bunch of things that have since been outlawed from the game. The move was effectively a combination clothesline/facemask.
Lane would have been a square peg in today's NFL, what with his emphasis on dishing out pain and everything that was the exact opposite of player safety. In his first NFL game he broke an opposing player's collarbone.
The Lions only got Lane for the final leg of his career, but he still made three Pro Bowls as a Lion, and is not only a Hall of Famer but a player who is absolutely iconic for his era.
Statistically, Herman Moore is the best wide receiver in Detroit Lions history—for now.
He owns franchise records in career receptions (670), career receiving yards (9,174), receptions in a season (123) and single-game receptions (14). He was an elite receiving option during a time that the Lions didn't have an elite passing game.
Moore made four Pro Bowls in his career, which is less than he could have, had he not played while Jerry Rice and Michael Irvin were in their respective primes.
Alex Karras was a great character, as well as a very good football player.
Oddly enough, Karras was a 250-pound defensive tackle with a monstrous bull rush playing next to a 300-pound tackle with outstanding quickness (Roger Brown). Karras made few friends with his chippy style of play, and despite being named to the 1960s All-Decade team, a Hall of Fame bid has eluded him.
Karras made four Pro Bowls in his career, and was part of a Lions' defensive line that terrorized quarterbacks, though we don't have career numbers since sacks were not officially recorded until 1982.
However, Karras was an integral part of the Lions' legendary 1962 Thanksgiving Day win over the then-undefeated Green Bay Packers. In that game, the Lions sacked Packers QB Bart Starr 11 times on the way to a 26-14 victory.
Jack Christiansen was the namesake of "Chris' Crew," the name for the Lions defensive backfield during their collective dominance in the 1950s.
Though a number of the members of "Chris' Crew" made this list (Yale Lary and Jim David), Christiansen is far and away the best. Christiansen was a member of the 1950s All-Decade team, led the league in interceptions twice, and was All-NFL as a defensive back twice.
In addition, Christiansen was a quality return man and is tied for the lead in career return touchdowns with 11. Not only did Christiansen make the Hall of Fame, but he changed the way people looked at and scout for defensive backs.
This isn't Doak Walker, it's the Doak Walker Award, given to the best college running back in the nation.
Anytime a player gets an award named after them, they're doing something right. Such is the case with Doak Walker, for whom the award for best running back in college football is named.
Walker's NFL career was abbreviated, but he made the most of it. According to the Detroit Lions' official website, when asked by the Detroit News' Jerry Green about why he walked away from the game at age 29, he responded, “I’d been on three division champions, two world champions, I’d been to five Pro Bowls, I’d been All-Pro four times. What else was there to do?”
Walker summed up his own accomplishments better than I could, and he has a bust in the Hall of Fame to justify them. The only reason Walker doesn't have any all-time records is because he walked away from the game on his own terms.
The original legendary No. 20, Lem Barney was a lockdown cornerback as well as an explosive punt returner.
He started his legacy as a rookie, pestering Gail Cogdill in the first scrimmage of the 1967 season with a pass deflection and interception the first two times he was targeted. In his first NFL game, he picked off Bart Starr's first pass and returned it for a touchdown. He finished his rookie season with the Defensive Rookie of the Year award and with three interceptions returned for touchdowns, a then-rookie record.
Roughly 11 seasons later, he retired as the Lions leader in interception return yardage, tied for first in return touchdowns, second in career interceptions and third in single-season interception return yards.
Barney played his entire 11-year career with the Detroit Lions, making seven Pro Bowls and seven All-Pro teams. He is a deserving Hall-of-Famer, but he still isn't the greatest player ever to wear No. 20 in Detroit.
I recognize that placing a player in the top five players in history when he's still active and in his prime may be a bit shortsighted.
But this ranking is based not on future production but rather what the man has accomplished to this point in time. If Calvin Johnson never played another down of football, he would deserve this ranking.
We are talking about the man who has re-written the Lions record books before the age of 30. Whatever franchise receiving records he doesn't already own, he is within a season or two's striking distance of. By the time he finished his current contract, he should own not only every Lions receiving record but a number of NFL receiving records as well.
Bobby Layne was such a great player for Detroit, people blame the Lions' woes over the last 55 years simply on his absence.
Truly indicative of his era, Layne was a hard-nosed tough guy, to the point that he was one of the last players in the league to refuse to wear a face mask on his helmet (back when that sort of thing was still optional). He also showed up to a number of practices and games drunk or hungover (as the attached clip will detail).
Despite the fact that the NFL passing game was woefully underdeveloped in Layne's era, he remains the Lions' all-time leader in pass yardage (15,710), and he is the only Lions quarterback in the Hall of Fame for his passing ability (with due respect to Dutch Clark, the era he played in necessitated that he be a rusher first).
Layne led the Lions to three NFL championships in the 1950s and was respected as one of the greatest leaders of his era.
Joe Schmidt is the greatest defender ever to play for the Lions. He is to the Lions what Al Kaline is to the Tigers.
Schmidt was captain of the Lions defense for nine years and was a key player in the transition of the middle linebacker to the "defensive quarterback" role they occupy today. It's hard to quantify how good Schmidt was with stats, since tackles, sacks and pass defenses were not recorded in his era. However, it is worth pointing out that in 1960, Schmidt won the NFL MVP.
Not the defensive MVP. The MVP of the entire league. He is one of only four defensive players since 1957 to win that honor.
Schmidt called the defensive plays out on the field and was apparently so good at it, that two years after the end of his career, he took over as head coach. To this day, Schmidt is the most recent coach with a winning record in Lions history (with at least a full season's slate of games).
Not really. You all saw this coming from the time we started at 50, because it's not even close.
Sanders' legend goes beyond just Detroit. He still pulls cheers and ovations in front of a New York-centric crowd when he announces NFL draft picks, and he won a national vote against a man who just recovered from a torn ACL to nearly break the single-season rushing record.
Sanders is one of the most productive and beloved players in NFL history, if not the single greatest. Of course he would be at the top of this list, and the only player who might be able to knock him down in the near future is Calvin Johnson, though he'll need about another seven to eight years at his current pace to even think about it.
So there you have it. My top 50 Lions of all time. Surely you've found something here to disagree with but hopefully not the whole thing. In either case, let me know about it in the comments. I am here to debate.