1. Barry Sanders, RB, 1989-1998
Now, I understand that we all knew who was number one on the list of the Detroit Lions top 50 players of all-time, and frankly, it wasn’t even close.
Sanders is now, and will forever be idolized in Detroit. He’s also 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 another half-decade at his current pace to even think about it.
The Detroit Lions selected Sanders with the 3rd overall pick in the 1989 Draft, thanks to the endorsement of then-coach Wayne Fontes. The Lions’ management considered drafting another Sanders, cornerback Deion Sanders, but Fontes convinced them to draft Barry Sanders instead.
He was offered #20, which had been worn by former Lions greats Lem Barney and Billy Sims; Sims was one of the league’s best running backs in the early 1980s, and Fontes had requested Sanders to wear the number in tribute to Sims.
Though there were concerns about his size, it turned out these concerns were unfounded. Sanders was far too quick for defenders to hit solidly on a consistent basis, and too strong to bring down with arm tackles. Though short at 5’8″, his playing weight was 203 lbs and Sanders had a large portion of this weight in his exceptionally large and muscular legs, which provided him with excellent acceleration and a very low center of mass; his weight was also the same as Walter Payton and only slightly under the NFL average for a back.
In contrast to many of the star players of his era, Sanders was also noted for his on-field humility. Despite his flashy playing style, Sanders was rarely seen celebrating after the whistle was blown. Instead, he preferred to hand the ball to a referee or congratulate his teammates.
In 1989, Sanders missed his rookie year training camp due to a contract dispute. He ran for eighteen yards his first carry during the regular season, and scored a touchdown on his fourth. He finished the season second in the NFL in rushing yards and touchdowns after declining to go back into the regular season finale just 10 yards shy of the rushing title (later won by Christian Okoye), and won the Rookie of the Year Award.
Barry was the featured running back on the Lion teams that made the playoffs five times during the 1990s (1991, 1993, 1994, 1995, and 1997). He was a member of the 1991 and 1993 squads that won the NFC Central division title; the 1991 team won 12 regular season games (a franchise record).
In 1994, Sanders rushed for 1,883 yards, on a 5.7 yards per carry average. He also totaled 283 receiving yards, which gave him a combined 2,166 yards from scrimmage for the season. He was named the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year. In 1995, Sanders posted 1,500 yards rushing with 398 receiving yards, beating his rushing total alone of the ’94 season. In 1996, Sanders rushed for 1,553 yards with a career-low 147 receiving yards.
Sanders’ greatest season came in 1997 when he became a member of the 2000 rushing yards club. After a start in which he gained 53 yards on 25 carries in the first two games of the season, Sanders ran for an NFL record 14 consecutive 100 yard games, including two 200 yard performances, en route to rushing for 2,053 yards. In reaching the 2,000 yard plateau, he became only the third player to do so in a single season and the first since O. J. Simpson to rush for 2,000 yards in a span of 14 consecutive games. He was the first running back to rush for 1,500 yards in five seasons and the only one to do it four consecutive years. At the end of the season, Sanders shared the Associated Press’s NFL Most Valuable Player Award with Green Bay QB Brett Favre.
In Sanders’ last season in the NFL, 1998, he rushed for 1,491 yards, ending his four-year streak of rushing for over 1,500 yards in a season.
Despite his individual success, the Lions never reached the Super Bowl while Sanders was with the team.The closest they came was in the 1991 season. Aided by Sanders’ 1,855 combined rushing/receiving yards and 17 touchdowns during the season, they recorded a 12–4 record and went on to defeat the Dallas Cowboys 38–6 in the divisional playoffs, which still stands as Detroit’s only playoff victory since defeating the Cleveland Browns to win the 1957 NFL Championship. The Lions lost to the Washington Redskins 41–10 in the NFC Championship Game, and Sanders was held to 59 total yards in the game.
In Sanders’ career, he achieved Pro Bowl status in all of his 10 seasons.Sanders was named first team All-Pro eight times from 1989–1991 and 1993–1997 and was named second team All-Pro twice in 1992 and 1998. Sanders was also named All-NFC from 1989-1992 to 1994-1997. Sanders was named Offensive Player of the Year in ’94 and ’97, NFL MVP in ’97, and was named to the 1990s NFL All-Decade team.
“It doesn’t matter where the play is blocked; he’ll find his own soft spot…The scheme doesn’t matter with Sanders. He can run from any alignment. While other people are stuck with joints, he seems to have ball bearings in his legs that give him a mechanical advantage…Sanders’ finest runs often occur when he takes the handoff and, with a couple of moves, turns the line of scrimmage into a broken field…Nobody has ever created such turmoil at the point of attack as Sanders has…Knock on wood, he seems indestructible…”