Ranking the greatest Detroit Lions of all-time is no easy task to accomplish. From No. 1 all the way up to No. 99, I will attempt to rank the greatest Lions players for each jersey number. This list continues with my selection for the best at No. 20.
Unquestionably the greatest player in franchise history and one of the greatest running backs in NFL history, Barry Sanders was the Lions’ first-round pick in 1989 and the third overall selection that year. Joining the likes of Lions legends Billy Sims and Lem Barney, Sanders became the last Lions player to wear No. 20. The Lions retired the No. 20 after Sanders retired in 1998.
During each of Sanders’ 10 seasons in Detroit, the Hall of Fame running back recorded more than 1,000 yards and when he retired, Sanders was 1,457 yards shy of the all-time record set by Walter Payton. Despite his individual success, the Lions would reach the postseason in just five of his 10 seasons with zero playoff wins.
Sanders was special right from the get-go, scoring a touchdown in just his fourth career carry. Sanders finished second in the NFL in rushing in 1989 as a rookie and was in the top two for each of his first three seasons. In his career, Sanders was either first or second in rushing seven times and had five seasons with over 1,500 yards. Sanders’ finest season came in 1997 where the running back rushed for 2,053 yards and had 11 touchdowns.
Sanders will go down as the best player to never appear in a Super Bowl, but not everything was entirely his fault. Sanders’ best chance to reach the Super Bowl was in 1991 when he led the Lions to the NFC Championship game. The Lions would lose to the eventual Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins 41-10. In 1993, Sanders rushed for 169 yards against the Green Bay Packers in the wild card, but lost 28-24 when the defense gave up a last-minute touchdown pass to Brett Favre. In 1994, backup quarterback and journeyman Dave Krieg led the Lions to a rematch against the Packers. With Green Bay selling out to stop the run, Sanders was held to -1 yards on 12 carries in another loss to Green Bay.
In 1995, Sanders was held to 40 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles and was literally taken out of the game after the Lions trailed the Eagles 38-7 at halftime. Finally, in 1997, Sanders rushed for 65 yards against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the Lions lost 20-10. Sanders would then retire in 1998 after he felt the Lions weren’t serious in building a contender.
Overall, Sanders rushed for 15,269 yards, scoring 99 touchdowns and reached the Pro Bowl in each of his 10 NFL seasons. It is safe to say there will be no one like Barry Sanders ever again, not just for the Lions, but in the rest of the NFL.
Other nominees: Billy Sims (1980-84), Lem Barney (1967-77).