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Top 10 Detroit Lions in NFL History

Updated on February 14, 2015

The are one of the most snake bit franchises in league history. Today, I rank the top 10 Detroit Lions of all time.

Originally based in Portsmouth, Ohio and called the Portsmouth Spartans, the team began play in 1929 as an independent professional team. In 1930, the Spartans formally joined the NFL as the other area independents folded because of the Great Depression. The team was purchased and moved to Detroit for the 1934 season and changed their name to the Lions. The Lions have won four NFL Championships, but their last one was in 1957. They are one of four teams not to play in a Super Bowl.

For this list, I look at the talent of the individual, what they meant to the team, and status as a pro bowler or a hall of famer.

10. Jason Hanson

That's right, I put a kicker on this list.

Jason Hanson was selected in the second round of the 1992 NFL Draft by the Lions and became their most consistent player. In addition to being the all-time longest-tenured Lion, Hanson is the only player who was with the team for the playoff runs in the 1990s and the infamous winless campaign in 2008. He is the team's all-time leader in scoring, with 2,150 points and field goals made with 495. He has scored 17 game winning field goals in his 21 years in Detroit.

Hanson retired after 2012 as a two time pro bowler and All-Pro. He holds the NFL record for the most games and seasons played with one team and the first player to score 2,000 points with one franchise.

9. Herman Moore

He was the perfect wide receiver for the run and shoot offense.

A first round pick in 1991, Herman Moore went on to break every major team receiving record. He is Detroit's all time leader in career receptions with 670. His finest season was in 1995 when he set the them NFL record most catches in a season with 123. One of Moore's and his teammates' more memorable games came in a classic Thanksgiving Day game against the Minnesota Vikings. Moore and fellow receivers Brett Perriman and Johnnie Morton all eclipsed the 100-yard receiving mark, running back Barry Sanders rushed for 138 yards, and quarterback Scott Mitchell passed for 410 yards in a 44-38 Lions' victory.

Moore spent his final season with the Giants before retiring after 2002. He was a four time pro bowler and All-Pro and was a member of six playoff teams.

8. Alex Karras

Many people remember Alex Karras as an actor in movies in TV shows like Blazing Saddles and Webster, but many often forget how dominant of a defensive tackle he was.

A first round pick by the Detroit Lions in 1958, Karras quickly became a force on the defensive line. He was named to four Pro Bowls and to the 1960s All-decade team. Karras only missed one game due to injury in his 12 year career and the Lions defense were always ranked towards the top when he was playing.

One reason he is not in the Hall of Fame is because of his 1963 suspension for gambling along with Green Bay running back Paul Hornung. Hornung has since been inducted. He was also considered a dirty player but then again, everyone played dirty in the early years of the league. Being one of the most dominant defensive lineman of his era, Karras deserves to be reconized in Canton.

7. Billy Sims

He is one of those players where everyone wonders what might have been.

Billy Sims was the first overall pick in the 1980 NFL Draft. In his four and a half seasons in Detroit, Sims had 1131 carries for 5106 yards and 42 touchdowns. He was given the nickname "Kung Fu Billy Sims" after a game where the Detroit Lions played the Houston Oilers. In the game, rather than be tackled during a run, Sims ran at, jumped, and, while fully airborne, kicked the Oiler's defender in the head. His number "20" would go on to be worn five years after his retirement by Barry Sanders, and is currently retired as an unofficial "Triumvirate" of the greatest Lions in the modern era to ever wear the number, which also includes Hall of Fame defensive back Lem Barney.

Sims career ended midway through 1984 when he suffered a terrible knee injury. Sims was forced to retire as a three time pro bowler, two time All-Pro, and the 1980 rookie of the year.

6. Calvin Johnson

"Megatron" has quickly become the top wide receiver in the league.

A first round pick in 2007, Calvin Johnson possesses a rare combination of size, hands, speed, strength, leaping ability, body control and hand-eye coordination. Even during the Lions 0-16 2008 season, Johnson was able to have success finishing fifth in the league in receiving yards and led the league in receiving touchdowns. By 2010, he established himself as the leagues best receiver leading the NFL in receiving yards twice. In 2012, Johnson broke Jerry Rice's single season receiving yardage record.

In his seven seasons, Johnson has been a four time pro bowler and All-Pro and holds NFL records for most career 200 yard receiving games and second most receiving yards in a game. He is Detroit's all time leader in receiving yards with 9,328 and touchdowns with 66.

5. Jack Christiansen

The leader of "Chris' Crew" was a force in the Detroit secondary for years.

A sixth round draft pick of the Lions in 1951, Jack Christiansen's leadership was essential for the team. As strong as his defense was, Christiansen also developed a well-deserved reputation as the most dangerous return man in the game, returning eight punts for touchdowns during his career. In both 1952 and 1953, Christiansen helped the Lions to an NFL championship, leading the league in interceptions with 12 during the latter season. He continued this high standard of play, tying for the interception lead with 10 picks in 1957 to help the Lions win their third title in six years. He then retired after the conclusion of the 1958 NFL season.

Christiansen was a five time pro bowler, a six time All-Pro, and a three time NFL Champion. His 46 career interceptions ranks fourth on the Lions' all-time list. As a punt returner, he had 85 returns for 1,084 yards, and his 12.8 average still stands as a Detroit record and is third all-time in NFL history. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1970.

4. Lem Barney

He was the first great player to wear number "20."

A second round draft choice in 1967, Lem Barney made an instant impact on his very first play intercepting Bart Starr and returning it for a touchdown. He was named the leagues defensive rookie of the year. He is still considered to be one of the greatest defensive backs in Detroit Lions history. During his time in the NFL, Barney had 56 career interceptions, and also gained over 2,000 yards returning interceptions, kickoffs, and punts.

Barney retired as a seven time All-Pro and pro bowler, and was a member of the all decade team of the 60's. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1992.

3. Joe Schmidt

He was one of the hardest hitting linebackers in league history.

A seventh round pick in 1953, Joe Schmidt worked his way into the lineup, helping Detroit to its second straight NFL title as a rookie. By 1956, Schmidt was named a team captain, a designation he would hold for the next nine years, with his defensive skills resulting in his calling signals for the team. Schmidt was named defensive player of the year four rimes in his 13 year career. Battling injuries in the last six years of his career, he continued to lead the Detroit defenses.

Schmidt retired in 1965 as a 10 time pro bowler, nine time All-Pro, and a member of the 50's all decade team. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1973.

2. Bobby Layne

His curse set the Lions back for decades.

After spending his first two seasons in Chicago and New York, Bobby Layne made his career in Detroit. From 1950-1955, Layne was re-united with his great friend and Highland Park High School teammate Doak Walker. In 1952, Bobby led the Detroit Lions to their first NFL Championship in 17 years. Layne would repeat this in 1953 for back to back NFL Championships. Layne was not the most gifted or talented person in the NFL at the time, but his drive, leadership, and clutch play made him great. After retiring from 15 seasons in the NFL, Layne held the career records for both passes attempted and completed, as well as passing yards gained and passing touchdowns.

In 1958, the Lions traded Layne to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Layne responded to the trade by supposedly saying that the Lions would "not win for 50 years" He was a six time pro bowler, five time All-Pro, and led the league in passing twice. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1967.

1. Barry Sanders

Was there really any question about who is the greatest Lion of all time?

A first round pick in 1989, Barry Sanders quickly became the focal point of the Detroit offense. He is easily the most elusive running back of all time and averaged 1,500 rushing yards a season in his career. 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 1997, Sanders became the third running back in history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season.

Sanders surprisingly retired after 1998 just 1,457 yards shy of Walter Payton's all time rushing record. Sanders was named All-Pro and a pro bowler every year of his career. He led the league in rushing four times and was a two time league MVP and offensive player of the year. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004.

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