Ranking the greatest Detroit Lions of all time

Profile Picture: Robert Criscola

May 22nd, 2021

Though they’ve never won a Super Bowl, the Detroit Lions have had many Hall of Famers pass through their locker room over the years. We’re counting down the five greatest Lions of all time below.

5. Dick “Night Train” Lane

Position: Cornerback
Years active: 1952-1965
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 7x Pro Bowl, 3x All-Pro

“Night Train” Lane played just six seasons with Detroit, but he made his presence felt on the field.

Lane is widely considered one of the greatest cornerbacks ever, and is still fourth all time in interceptions with 68. He was also one of the all-time scariest players in NFL history, as he often resorted to now-outlawed tackling tactics like clotheslines and yanking the facemask.

“My object is to stop the guy before he gains another inch,” Lane once told The Sun-Telegram. “[I]f I hit them in the legs they may fall forward for a first down…I grab them around the neck so I can go back to the bench and sit down.”

4. Joe Schmidt

Position: Linebacker
Years active: 1953-1965
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 10x Pro Bowl, 8x All-Pro, 2x NFL Champion

Joe Schmidt was not only well-respected, but well-liked in his time in the NFL.

Schmidt immediately found success with Detroit despite being a seventh-round draft pick, starting all 12 regular-season games before his team took the 1953 NFL Championship. The Lions would win it all against in 1957, this time with Schmidt serving as team captain. He would also be honored as Detroit’s MVP – as voted on by the players – four times.

Schmidt appeared in 155 games over his 13-year career, never failing to suit up from 1953-1959. He intercepted 24 passes and recovered 17 fumbles, and while tackles weren’t an officially-recorded statistic in his day, Schmidt is considered one of the best tacklers ever.

3. Calvin Johnson

Position: Wide Receiver
Years active: 2007-2015
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 6x Pro Bowl, 3x All-Pro

Calvin Johnson’s sudden retirement in 2015 at age 30 was not only a great loss for Lions fans, but for fans of the NFL as a whole.

“Megatron” made the Pro Bowl in each of his final six seasons, including his incredible 2012 campaign in which he tallied 122 receptions and 1,964 yards, both tops in football. He would play in just two postseason games but was no shrinking violet. In fact, Johnson delivered one of the better playoff performances by a wide-out in recent memory in 2011, when he went for 211 yards on 12 receptions in a 45-28 loss in the Wild Card round against the New Orleans Saints.

Despite his brief nine-year career – all spent in Detroit – Johnson was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

2. Bobby Layne

Position: Quarterback
Years active: 1948-1962
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 6x Pro Bowl, 2x All-Pro, 3x NFL Champion

Nicknamed “The Blond Bomber,” Bobby Layne was an integral part of the Lions’ 1952, 1953 and 1957 championship-winning teams.

Layne led the NFL in passing yards in his first two years in Detroit in 1950 and 1951. He began to throw less often as the years went on, partly due to the Lions becoming a well-rounded team that didn’t need bailing out on the other side of the ball.

The six-time Pro Bowler compiled a 53-29-2 record as the Lions’ starter before being traded to Pittsburgh in 1958. He was inducted into Canton in 1967.

1. Barry Sanders

Position: Running Back
Years active: 1989-1998
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 10x Pro Bowl, 6x All-Pro, 1x MVP, 1x Offensive Rookie of the Year, 2x Offensive Player of the Year

With all due respect to the others on this list, Barry Sanders was a slam-dunk choice for greatest Lion of all time.

Sanders was one of the most prolific running backs in NFL history, earning the rushing title four times in just 10 seasons. He was named to the Pro Bowl in every single one of those campaigns. In 1997, Sanders became the first – and to date only – Detroit Lion to win NFL MVP, splitting the honor with Green Bay Packers legend Brett Favre.

Despite hanging up his cleats at age 30, Sanders is fourth on the all-time rushing list with 15,269 yards. He’s also 10th all time in rushing touchdowns with 99.

Honorable mentions: Dutch Clark, Matt Stafford, Lou Creekmur, Doak Walker, Dick LeBeau, Alex Karras