The Detroit Lions have never been to the Super Bowl, but the man who got the franchise closest to the title game, Barry Sanders, the No. 3 overall selection in the 1989 NFL draft out of Oklahoma State, is the best pick in team history.
Why Sanders is the best draft pick in Lions history: He is one of the best running backs in NFL history and was the catalyst of the most consistent time frame of winning for the Lions during the Super Bowl era.
Sanders played 10 seasons and rushed for more than 1,000 yards in every one of them. He rushed for 1,500 yards or more in four consecutive seasons, including a 2,053-yard year in 1997, when he was 29 years old. He was remarkably durable, playing in 153 games and only missing seven, with five of them coming in one season (1993).
In the franchise's only playoff win during the Super Bowl era, against Dallas after the 1991 season, he rushed for 69 yards and a touchdown and caught five passes for 30 yards. The Lions lost the NFC Championship Game to Washington the next weekend.
Sanders' skill forced defenses to account for him on every play. He had a knack for making defenders miss and was one of the most difficult players to tackle in the league. He became a beacon of hope for an otherwise downtrodden franchise, leading Detroit to five playoff appearances and three 10-win seasons, including the franchise-best 12-4 record in 1991.
He finished his career with 15,269 rushing yards and 109 touchdowns, all but 10 of them on the ground. He is in the Hall of Fame, along with three fellow top-five picks from his draft class: Troy Aikman (first, Dallas), Derrick Thomas (fourth, Kansas City) and Deion Sanders (fifth, Atlanta).
Barry Sanders is remembered as one of the best Lions in history and is still widely cheered more than 15 years after his retirement. He also was one of the rare players to walk away on top of his game, retiring on the eve of training camp before the 1999 season.
Calvin Johnson, WR: The best draft pick in the Matt Millen era with the Lions, Johnson is one of the best receivers in NFL history. The Lions drafted him second overall in 2007 and he was so good, opposing defenses had to account for him at all times. He retired last month after nine seasons and 731 receptions, 11,619 yards and 83 touchdowns. He holds almost every significant Lions receiving record.
Lomas Brown, LT: The 6-foot-4, 282-pound lineman was drafted with the No. 6 pick in 1985 and ended up starting 163 games for the Lions between 1985 and 1995. He played seven more seasons after leaving Detroit, playing in 263 career games -- starting 251 of them. He was a seven-time Pro Bowler.
Bubba Baker, DE: The No. 40 overall pick (second round) of the 1978 draft, Baker played in 181 career games -- 67 of them with Detroit. He had 75.5 sacks during his five years with the Lions, including 23 in 1978 (both numbers are unofficial). He ended up playing for four teams: Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland and Minnesota.
Charlie Sanders, TE: He was taken with the No. 74 overall pick (third round) in 1968 and played 10 seasons with the Lions, with three first-team All-Pro appearances and seven Pro Bowls. He had 336 career receptions for 4,817 yards and 31 touchdowns -- big numbers for his era. Sanders was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2007 and was active in the Detroit community until his death in July at age 68.
Lem Barney, CB: The No. 34 overall pick (second round) in 1967, Barney played corner in 140 games for the Lions, intercepting 56 passes and returning seven for touchdowns. He was a two-time first-team All-Pro and made seven Pro Bowls. He was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1992.
Michael Rothstein | espn.go.com | April 22, 2016