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Detroit Lions Legacy roster: Running backs

The Lions have fielded some of the best running backs in the history of the NFL, but what would an ideal backfield look like?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Barry Sanders is the greatest running back to ever lace up his cleats. With that out of the way, it’s always incredible to look back at the Lions history and see just how fortunate the team has been at the position. Sure, since Barry retired the team has been an ever-rotating backfield of varying degrees of low-level competence behind turnstile blocking and poor schemes with a lack of run focus... I was going somewhere with that, but maybe I’ll just leave that as it is. The run game has stunk. Maybe someday we’ll be putting Kerryon Johnson on a list like this? Anyway, let’s kick this off!

Previous Legacy Roster articles

Introduction
Quarterbacks

The GOAT

Barry Sanders (1989-1998)

  • 10 Pro Bowls
  • 10 All Pro selections
  • 2 Offensive player of the year
  • 4 Rushing titles
  • Offensive rookie of the year
  • Jersey number retired
  • Hall of Fame

I could take up the whole article just talking about the accolades that Barry accrued during his exceptional Lions career. The Hall of Famer made a Pro Bowl in every season he played, making six All-Pro squads in the process. Statistically, he averaged over 1,500 yards and almost 10 touchdowns a season to go with 35 catches per season for around 290 yards and a score. To highlight just how crazy that is, understand that no Lions running back has ever even hit 1,500 yards and, outside of Billy Sims, nobody has even hit 1,200. This is going to be a vote, as all of these articles will be, and I’m sure there will be a case made for someone else, but let’s be real.

The not Barry Sanders potential starters

Billy Sims (1980-1984)

  • 3 Pro Bowls
  • 3 1,000 yard seasons
  • Averaged 37 catches per season
  • Offensive rookie of the year

Before Barry wore 20, we had Billy. Sims stormed onto the scene by putting up the best rookie season for a Lions rusher ever, racking up 1,303 yards and 13 touchdowns to go with what was at the time a pretty insane 51 receptions for 621 yards and three scores. Running backs getting 50+ catches is becoming common in the NFL, but there were few in the 80s who even attempted that sort of thing.

Sims would follow up that performance with back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons, including his least efficient rushing year in the strike shortened 1982 season. Billy played two more productive seasons before he would take a hit while planting his foot in the Metrodome’s turf and would never play again. Sims has always been a case of “what if” among fans. The shortened 1982 and his injured 1984 seasons he was on pace for around 1,200 yards and close to 10 touchdowns, numbers that could rival any of the best, and he was always efficient as a pass catcher.

Doak Walker (1950-1955)

  • 5 Pro Bowls
  • 5 All Pro Selections
  • NFL Rookie of the year
  • Retired Number (37)
  • Hall of Fame
  • 2 Time NFL Scoring leader
  • 6.3 YPC in the playoffs

We all know why the #20 jersey is retired for the Lions, but have you ever noticed nobody ever wears #37? That number was retired for Doak Walker, who joined his former high school teammate, Bobby Layne, to lead one of the best offenses of the era. Like Sanders and Sims, Walker wasted no time making his presence felt as rookie of the year. His lackluster rushing stats aren’t much to get excited for, but Walker was a first-team All Pro in every season he played except one, which was shortened due to a leg injury.

Walker would retire in 1955 because he had several business interests outside football (which wasn’t the moneymaker back then that it is now). Walker is occasionally talked of as an unworthy Hall of Fame honoree, which I always used to write off as being a relic of statistics in a different era. Upon further researching him, there’s no question he belongs. Sure, his rushing stats aren’t much to look at, but as a runner, receiver, and kicker he would lead the league in scoring twice, his first and final seasons. He scored the third-most points in 1951 and 1953 and second-most in 1954. So outside of his injury shortened year, he was top three in points every season he played, leading twice.

Fun fact: The Lions never drafted Doak Walker, but instead drafted John Rauch that season with the second overall pick, then traded him for Walker who was taken next.

Poll

Who is the Detroit Lions Legacy roster starting rusher?

This poll is closed

  • 94%
    Barry Sanders
    (1075 votes)
  • 3%
    Billy Sims
    (39 votes)
  • 1%
    Doak Walker
    (12 votes)
  • 0%
    Someone else (in comments)
    (7 votes)
1133 votes total Vote Now

The Rotational Back

Rotational back has become somewhat of a dirty word of late, but the NFL is replete with guys who rotate in with the starter to create a dangerous backfield. Alvin Kamara is the latest star in a backfield he didn’t lead in carries, so it’s not a slight. Obviously this roster has a hell of a choice to make for the second spot with (presumably) two players who were both effective and versatile in their roles. Some others who deserve consideration, though:

James Stewart (2000-2002)

  • 2 1,000 yard seasons
  • Averaged more than 30 receptions a season
  • 10th all time rushing for Lions

After a solid career with the Jaguars, though disappointing for a first-round pick, James Stewart would sign with the Lions as the first major post-Sanders acquisition. His first year wasn’t very efficient, rushing for only 3.5 yards per carry, but it was productive as he hit 1,184 yards and 10 touchdowns to go with 32 catches. There are only four players with top 15 rushing seasons for the Lions and Stewart is one of them. His time with the Lions wasn’t very long, but he’s one of only three players in Lions history with multiple 1,000-yard seasons, with Sanders and Sims obviously being the other two.

Bob Hoernshemeyer (1950-1955)

  • 2 Pro Bowls
  • 15th all time Lions rusher

I mentioned that with Doak Walker you sometimes see people questioning his place in the hall, and Bob guywhosenameimnotgoingtokeeptyping is a big reason why, in an era of modern stat crunching, that comes up. Bob was a more productive rusher during the Lions championship runs than Walker was, so you get the “Not even the best rusher on his team!” argument for Walker. I already went over why that was dumb and why Walker was great, but Bob isn’t the kind of guy you should just write off, either. He made a couple of Pro Bowls on his own, and rushing for over 450 yards for seven straight seasons (four with the Lions) is no common feat in that era, even if it looks like nothing today.

Kevin Jones (2004-2007)

  • 1,000 yard season
  • Never scored less than 5 times a season as a Lion

Another day, another Lions highly-picked running back showing out as a rookie. Kevin Jones dealt with injuries that derailed his career pretty early, but man was his rookie season a fun one. Rushing for 1,133 yards and five touchdowns and catching a further 28 passes, Jones was heralded as a worthy successor to Sims and Sanders. It wouldn’t last, however, as the injury bug struck almost immediately and he would be lost or limited several times over his short Lions career. He still sits ninth on the all-time Lions rushing list, though, and this whole project is about what could have been in some warped universe where time doesn’t matter.

Poll

Who will be the Legacy Roster’s RB2?

This poll is closed

  • 76%
    Billy Sims
    (779 votes)
  • 9%
    Doak Walker
    (96 votes)
  • 2%
    James Stewart
    (24 votes)
  • 0%
    Bob Hoernshemeyer
    (4 votes)
  • 4%
    Kevin Jones
    (47 votes)
  • 4%
    Barry Sanders, if you all lose your mind and he isn’t starting
    (48 votes)
  • 1%
    Someone else (in comments)
    (16 votes)
1014 votes total Vote Now

The Reserves

Though they’ll certainly be getting the most touches, you can’t run an offense through just two guys. In the Lions’ storied history, there have been a ton of good rushers who were integral parts of an offense, so we’re going to pick the top two from this next group (in addition to those already listed) to round out our RB stable. This could be just a ‘best man’ philosophy or looking for guys to fill specific roles, we’ll let you battle it out in the comments.

Altie Taylor (1969-1975)

  • 4th All time rusher for Lions
  • 500 or more yards for six straight seasons

Who is Altie Taylor? I hear you asking through your screens. Taylor was a Lions running back in the 70s who currently sits fourth all time for career yardage. He had a middling career even by 70s standards, but we’re looking at someone to round out a roster, not start, and Taylor is just the kind of guy to do that. Never great, but also never really terrible.

Dexter Bussey (1974-1984)

  • 3rd All time rusher for Lions
  • Played for Lions only for 11 years
  • 1,000 all purpose yards in 1980

Bussey was a Lion for more than a decade, and while it wasn’t a career that makes you stunned you didn’t think of him immediately, it was very productive. Bussey rushed for less than 4.0 yards per carry only three times, once as a rookie (where he only had nine carries), once in the strike-shortened 1982 season, and his final year in Detroit. Every other year he played, he was at least okay toting the rock. He showed he could be a productive receiving option as well, with three seasons with over 25 catches. Bussey is the Lions’ third all-time leading rusher, behind only Barry and Billy.

Reggie Bush (2013-2014)

  • 1,000 Yard season
  • 1,500 All purpose yard season

With only 18 seasons with a RB rushing for over 1,000 yards, and only six players, I’d be remiss to ignore Reggie here. Bush only just hit that mark in 2013 after coming in as a free agent, but injuries and a lack of effectiveness in his follow-up year led to that being the end for him in Detroit after only two seasons. When he was on, he could outrun the best of them and was a lot of fun to watch in a paired backfield with Joique Bell. A pity the team couldn’t have gotten him earlier or kept him healthy.

Mel Farr (Superstar) (1967-1973)

  • 8th All time rusher for Lions
  • 2 Pro Bowls
  • 1 All Pro selection
  • Offensive rookie of the year

Mel Farr is a beloved figure in Detroit, but his career was more than just littered with injuries, it was defined by them. Farr had a great rookie season as a rusher, putting up 860 yards (fifth in the NFL) and three touchdowns, netting him Rookie of the Year honors (Lions were damn good at getting Rookie of the Year running backs once upon a time). He would never complete a full season of football in his seven-year career, and was only a full-time starter once in his Pro Bowl 1970 season. Farr is a riskier pick given his injuries, but could be electric at times.

Poll

Who will round out the Lions RB stable?

This poll is closed

  • 39%
    Sims or Walker, whoever is left
    (360 votes)
  • 4%
    James Stewart
    (39 votes)
  • 0%
    Bob Hoernshemeyer
    (8 votes)
  • 5%
    Kevin Jones
    (48 votes)
  • 1%
    Altie Taylor
    (10 votes)
  • 9%
    Dexter Bussey
    (83 votes)
  • 22%
    Reggie Bush
    (203 votes)
  • 16%
    Mel Farr
    (147 votes)
  • 2%
    Someone else (in comments)
    (20 votes)
918 votes total Vote Now

Fullback

Oh, you didn’t think we’d forget this one, did you?

Cory Schlesinger (1995-2006)

  • Played for 12 straight seasons as a Lion
  • Blocked for Barry Sanders and James Stewart

A fan favorite from pretty much the moment he stepped on a football field, Cory Schlesinger was a monster in his day. Though he never went to any Pro Bowls, he was an alternate three times and was a Sports Illustrated All Pro in 2001.

His career started out slow, not due to his ability, but due to this newfangled three wide receiver thing everybody was doing at the time. Eventually, the Lions remembered they had something in this Barry Sanders fella and thought they’d give the ole running the rock with power thing a try. The rest, as they say, is history.

Schlesinger would stay in Detroit after Sanders retired and was even an integral part of the passing game in 2001 where he hauled in 60 catches for 466 yards. Broken facemasks and bloody noses aside, Schlesinger was a very good player for more than a decade in Detroit.

Steve Owens (1970-1974)

  • 1 Pro Bowl
  • First Lion to rush for 1,000 yards in a season
  • 14th All time rusher for Lions

Back before fullbacks were simply blockers, teams would heavily feature them in the backfield. Heisman winner Steve Owens was even drafted in the first round by Detroit, but injuries were a factor from day one. Healthy in his second season, Owens would rush for 1,035 yards, becoming the first Detroit Lions rusher to accomplish that feat. Injuries would then take their toll again and Owens struggled to make much of an impact after that stellar season.

Nick Pietrosante (1959-1965)

  • 5th All time rusher for Lions
  • 2 Pro Bowls
  • 400+ yards for six straight seasons
  • Two 800 yard rushing seasons

A two-time Pro Bowler, Pietrosante, like Owens, played at a time when fullbacks were still part of an offense. He rushed for 872 and 841 yards in his Pro Bowl years before tailing off. In fact, from an efficiency standpoint, he declined in each year from his first, dropping from 5.9 (!) to 5.4 YPC then down to 4.2, then 3.3, and he wouldn’t reach 4.0 again. Still, those early years were pretty great, and as a fullback he accounted for more than 1,100 yards of offense in 1961.

James Jones (1983-1988)

  • 900 yards of offense four seasons in a row
  • 1,000 yards of offense three seasons in a row
  • Played three positions (RB, FB, TE)
  • 45+ catches four seasons in a row

Versatility is the name of the game, and if that’s your preference, then I present to you James Jones. By the 80s, fullbacks had largely lost their luster and teams were moving away from using them as featured pieces of the offense. That didn’t deter Jones from wrecking shop any chance he got.

He didn’t make it to any Pro Bowls, but from his rookie season in 1983 to 1986 he accounted for more than 900 yards of offense and a minimum of seven touchdowns for four straight seasons. Check this, as a rookie fullback he picked up 475 yards rushing and six touchdowns as well as 46 receptions for 467 yards and a score, and that was his WORST performance over that four-year stretch. Jones would line up as a fullback, a tailback, and a tight end during his Lions tenure, and while he may not be a household name, he’s a guy who deserves a chance on the all-time squad.

Poll

Who is the starting fullback on the Detroit Lions Legacy roster?

This poll is closed

  • 75%
    Cory Schlesinger
    (669 votes)
  • 5%
    Steve Owens
    (52 votes)
  • 6%
    Nick Pietrosante
    (57 votes)
  • 11%
    James Jones
    (106 votes)
  • 0%
    Someone else (in comments)
    (8 votes)
892 votes total Vote Now

Do your thing!

As before, this is now up to you. You get to decide who you’d want on your Legacy roster and in what roles. Do you have a dark horse that I didn’t mention here? Is there someone you feel I downplayed, or maybe someone you feel I overhyped that should have been left off? This is your chance to make a case for the best backfield that Lions history has to offer. So do your thing, vote, and let us know in the comments who you picked. Do it to it, Lions fans.