Honestly, I wish there were more than eight.
But this is the Detroit Lions we’re talking about. It would be difficult to find eight first-round picks that worked out, much less late-round steals.
You’ll probably notice a couple of things about this list. The first is that there are no picks listed in the 1960s or 70s. That’s no mistake. While there were a handful of decent picks during those two decades, few of them ever made so much as a single Pro Bowl or All-Pro squad.
To use another metric, only four players drafted by the Detroit Lions in the last 50 years have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Fred Biletnikoff (1965), Lem Barney (1967), Charlie Sanders (1968), and Barry Sanders (1989).
Of course, Hall of Famers are a big deal, so to say that the Lions have “only” produced four is perhaps a bit crass. But hey, I’m talking about the last 50 years, and the Pittsburgh Steelers produced four Hall-bound players in 1974 alone, so I don’t feel like I’m raising the bar too high.
But enough about that. It’s time to feel good about the Lions’ drafting prowess, even if it is just in pulling long-term role players.
As a fifth-round selection and Hall of Famer who spent his entire playing career with the Lions, you would think LeBeau makes the list. But actually, LeBeau was drafted by the Cleveland Browns, cut almost immediately, and signed with the Lions as a free agent before his rookie season. So he just barely doesn’t count. Or, if you have a looser interpretation of “draft steal” (mine involves the player actually being drafted by Detroit), he could be first on the list.
Sanders is a Hall of Fame tight end who also played his entire career with the Lions, but was drafted 74th overall. Admittedly, that is a later pick (numerically) than one of the players on this list. But Sanders was drafted in the third round of the 1968 draft, which doesn’t really qualify as a “late-round” pick in my book.
The Tuna was drafted by the Lions in the seventh round of the 1964 NFL Draft, but was cut before playing a single game. Not in any way a great player, but considering he decided to start his coaching career immediately afterwards, you have to figure the Lions get some credit/blame for that.
Yeah, I know. I’m setting the bar pretty low here.
Really, Lions drafts have been that bad for that many years. I’m characterizing a career backup whose family now has a reality show on the Oprah Network as a “draft steal.”
But think about it for a moment. While never a star, Rodney Peete was a reliable backup quarterback in the NFL for 16 years, and all it cost was a sixth-round pick.
Peete also helped the Lions bridge the gap while they were in the process of being stunned at how awesomely bad Andre Ware was.
Peete: Sixth round, 16 years.
Ware: Seventh overall pick, six games.
I know what you're thinking.
"If you can't find a picture of the guy with the Lions, maybe he wasn't that great a draft steal for the Lions."
Maybe you're right, but I'm working with what I have.
Willie Green is another player whose career was never flashy. But as an eighth-round pick, Green was productive enough.
Green caught for just over 500 yards in each of his first two seasons, and had two touchdown catches in the Lions’ 38-6 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the second round of the 1991 playoffs (you know, that one playoff game we keep talking about).
That just might make Green the only clutch playoff performer the Lions have had since… Jim Doran, perhaps?
Green’s career in Detroit was short-lived, but he showed up in Denver a few years later (as you can see) as part of the Broncos’ back-to-back Super Bowl run.
The guy was drafted in 1980. I have no idea why this picture is monochrome. But moving on...
Can a kicker count as a draft steal?
Well, considering Jason Hanson was drafted in the second round (and because I’m afraid of what goes on this list after Rodney Peete), I’m going to go with a big yes.
But seriously, Murray is worthy of some respect. He was a Lion for twelve seasons (or right up until Hanson came to town), which is part of the reason Dave Rayner was only the third kicker to make Detroit’s roster since Murray was drafted in 1980.
Murray’s career lasted until 2000, and he currently sits twelfth on the all-time NFL scorers list.
Plus he was voted MVP of the 1981 Pro Bowl. So he’s got that going for him.
Christiansen was drafted 69th overall in 1951. And since the 1951 NFL Draft was 30 rounds, Christiansen was actually selected in the upper part of the draft.
That being said, Christiansen still makes the list. He needed only eight NFL seasons to make enough of an impact on the NFL to be considered a Hall-of-Famer, and to this day holds a number of Lions team records.
In addition to being one of his era’s most dominant defensive backs, he was also an excellent return specialist, who became the first player (there have been only two since) to return two punts for touchdowns in a single game.
In eight NFL seasons, Christiansen was a six-time All-Pro, five-time Pro Bowler, and three-time NFL Champion, all with the Lions.
Expectations may not have been terribly high for young Stephen Boyd, who spent his rookie season backing up the legendary Chris Spielman after being drafted in the fifth round.
But clearly the coaching staff saw something worth noting in that season, because Spielman was allowed to walk in free agency the following season, and Boyd took over as starting middle linebacker. It took a season for Boyd to settle into the role, and no more.
Boyd opened his third season in 1997 with a 15-tackle game in which he also recorded his first career interception and first career touchdown (on a 42-yard fumble return). He would go on to lead the Lions in tackles for the next four seasons.
Boyd was a Pro Bowler in 1999 and 2000, and would have played as an alternate in 1998 had he not been recovering from a shoulder injury himself.
Sadly, just as Boyd appeared to be approaching his prime, he missed all but four games in the 2001 season, and retired the following offseason at the age of 28 due to chronic back pain.
Boyd is currently 38 years old. Had he remained healthy, he could have been a steady fixture in the Lions defense for another decade.
Cory Schlesinger was never going to be a Hall-of-Fame player. Despite playing 12 NFL seasons with the Detroit Lions, he compiled under 500 total career rushing yards.
However, the man he soon became synonymous with regularly eclipsed that number in an average season.
Schlesinger was the primary lead blocker and short-yardage back for Barry Sanders in the latter half of his career. It was a job that afforded him little in the way of statistics, and even less glory. But it did pave the way to some of Sanders’ best statistical seasons.
But glory was never really Schlesinger’s style. The thunder to Sanders’ lightning, Schlesinger’s style is best explained by describing the way his equipment came away from it.
Schlesinger is well-known for having broken over 200 facemasks (more than one per game) over the course of his career. That, of course, is a by-product of his unwillingness to back down from anyone or anything, and perhaps taking the term “hard-nosed play” to extremes.
Schlesinger was a three-time Pro Bowl alternate, but that has little to do with why he’s on this list. He’s on this list because you’ll get a knot in your stomach when I tell you that the Detroit Lions drafted Schlesinger one round later in 1995 than where they drafted Jerome Felton in 2008.
In the 1950’s, the Lions were a championship-winning powerhouse. They were dynasty team, with the Cleveland Browns as rivals.
Those two teams faced one another in the NFL Championship game three consecutive years, and four times in five years. Although the Browns rattled off seven championship appearances in eight years (six of them consecutive), they only won three.
The Lions also won three NFL Championships in the 1950’s, all of them against the Browns. In those days, they were known as a gritty defensive team.
Joe Schmidt was a big reason why.
Coming into the draft, Schmidt’s size was an issue. Standing six feet tall and weighing a tick under 200 pounds, nobody projected Schmidt to be terribly effective as a linebacker. That concern caused Schmidt to fall to the seventh round.
Schmidt was named team captain after only three years with the Lions, and went on to be the leader of the Lions defense for 10 years thereafter.
Ten Pro Bowls and a Hall-of-Fame career later, Schmidt retired in 1966. By 1967, he was the Lions’ head coach.
Schmidt coached the Lions for six seasons (1967-1972) with modest success, but retired shortly after a tirade on the team’s performance launched by owner William Clay Ford. According to Schmidt, coaching “just wasn’t fun anymore.”
Schmidt is the last Lions coach to have an overall winning record (43-35-7) with the team after coaching at least one full season.
Schmidt’s number 56 has been retired by the Detroit Lions organization, and Schmidt himself has been named to several lists of the top players ever to play in the NFL.
If this were a list of greatest players drafted in the late rounds by the Lions, rest assured that Jack Christiansen and Joe Schmidt would be No. 1A and No. 1B.
But this is a list of the biggest draft steals, and never did the Detroit Lions get away with one more than when they grabbed Jack Christiansen’s former defensive backfield partner, a little guy standing 5′11″, 170 pounds, from Colorado State in the 22nd round.
That’s not a typo. The 22nd round. Twenty-second.
David, a six-time Pro Bowler in eight NFL seasons with the Lions, joined future Hall-of-Famers Yale Lary and Christiansen in what was one of the most devastating defensive backfields in football.
The diminutive David earned a reputation as a hard hitter (and became known around the league as “The Hatchet”) after the 170-pounder knocked out starting quarterbacks and future Hall of Famers Y.A. Tittle and Tom Fears in consecutive games in 1953.
David is still fifth on the Lions’ all-time list for career interceptions, and he was a part of all three of Detroit’s NFL Championships in the 1950s.