Detroit Lions: The 5 best drafts in franchise history
A brief look at the history of Detroit Lions drafts
Detroit Lions fans haven’t been this optimistic in years. Dan Campbell’s aggressive coaching style seems to work, and it’s awfully entertaining to watch. Offensive coordinator (for now) Ben Johnson looks like one of the best young minds in the sport. And Jared Goff’s resurgence (the Goffaissance?) has the Lions looking at him like a legitimate franchise quarterback.
But the main reason for Lions optimism is the youth of the team. So much of their success this season was due to young players. Brad Holmes aced his first two drafts as general manager.
The 2021 class saw the Lions add perennial Pro Bowl candidates Penei Sewell and Amon-Ra St. Brown, and a quality starting defensive tackle in Alim McNeill. Then in 2022 Holmes landed FOUR impact defenders, along with two high-upside offensive players in Jameson Williams and James Mitchell. We may have just witnessed two of the best drafts in Detroit Lions history.
And that got us to wondering.
What ARE the best draft classes in Detroit Lions history?
A quick note here. The NFL draft started in 1936, and for a long time it was kind of weird. Many drafted players never signed, and sometimes teams had 30 or more picks in a draft class. If we’re being honest, most of the best drafts in Detroit Lions history occurred in the 1950s. From 1951-1953 they drafted four future Hall-of-Famers in Dick Stanfel, Jack Christiansen, Yale Lary, and Joe Schmidt.
But it seems kind of odd to center our list on an era where plastic helmets were new technology. So for the purposes of this piece we are focusing on drafts in the Super Bowl era (after 1965). Apologies to your grandfather.
The 5th Best Detroit Lions Draft – 1992
Notable Picks – Robert Porcher (1), Tracy Scroggins (2), Jason Hanson (2), Larry Tharpe (6), Willie Clay (8)
Landing the franchise leader in sacks (Porcher, with 95.5) and the franchise leader in points (Hanson, with 2,150) is an awfully good start. But the Lions also grabbed Scroggins, whose 60.5 sacks ranks third in franchise history, and Clay, a ball-hawking safety who earned the nickname “Big Play” a few decades before another Detroit Lions defensive back. Tharpe was a decent offensive lineman who appeared in 76 games and made 48 starts over a six-year career.
The 4th Best Detroit Lions Draft – 2013
Notable Picks – Ziggy Ansah (1), Darius Slay (2), Larry Warford (3), Devin Taylor (4), Sam Martin (5), Theo Riddick (6)
Lions fans don’t view the Martin Mayhew era very fondly. But you have to hand it to him for the 2013 draft, because Mayhew landed future Pro Bowlers with each of his first three picks. Ansah ranks fourth in Lions history with 48 sacks, and he had five strong seasons with the team before injuries spoiled his career. Slay made three Pro Bowls with the Lions and has added two more since being traded to Philadelphia.
Warford was named the PFF Rookie of the Year in 2013, started for four seasons in Detroit, and then made three Pro Bowls with the Saints. Taylor was a decent rotational pass rusher and Riddick was an extremely productive hybrid running back, catching 285 passes for 14 touchdowns with the Lions. Sam Martin is a 10-year veteran and one of 14 players in NFL history to average more than 46 yards per punt.
The 3rd Best Detroit Lions Draft – 1988
Notable Picks – Bennie Blades (1), Chris Spielman (2), Pat Carter (3), William White (4), Eric Andolsek (5)
Blades earned All-Rookie honors and made the 1991 Pro Bowl during his nine-year run with the Lions, and he was considered one of the most intimidating safeties in the league. Spielman is the franchise leader in career tackles (1,138), a four-time Pro Bowler, and an undisputed Lions legend. Pat Carter only spent one year in Detroit before being traded to the Rams, but he played 154 games as a steady blocking tight end. William White was a solid defensive back who played 11 seasons in the NFL, and he collected 13 interceptions over 79 starts for the Lions. And Eric Andolsek was a three-year starter at guard for the Lions before he was tragically killed in a car accident.
The 2nd Best Detroit Lions Draft – 1967
Notable Picks – Mel Farr (1), Lem Barney (2), Paul Naumoff (3), Mike Weger (9)
This was a historically great draft, for multiple reasons. Mel Farr won Rookie of the Year in 1967 and made two Pro Bowls as a talented, versatile running back. But for generations of Detroiters he was also a cape-wearing car salesman who made iconic, low-budget TV commercials. The Lions then followed up by taking future Hall-of-Famer Lem Barney in the 2nd round. He intercepted 10 passes as a rookie, and 56 total over his 11 seasons with Detroit. Barney also served as a return man, and he even punted for the Lions in 1967 and 1969. Interestingly, both Farr and Barney appear as background characters talking in Marvin Gaye’s classic song “What’s Going On.”
Paul Naumoff does carry quite as much cachet as Farr and Barney, but he was an 11-year-starter at linebacker for the Lions. He made the Pro Bowl in 1970, and he once played in 142 consecutive games. Mike Weger intercepted 17 passes over eight seasons as a starting safety for the Lions, and he was an honorable mention for the Pro Bowl twice.
The Best Detroit Lions Draft – 1989
Notable Picks – Barry Sanders (1), Mike Utley (3), Ray Crockett (4), Lawrence Pete (5), Rodney Peete (6), Jason Phillips (10)
Is one player doing most of the heavy lifting here? Yes. But when that one player is a Hall-of-Famer who made the Pro Bowl in all 10 of his seasons? Well, that’s a pretty great draft. Barry Sanders is the best Lions player ever, and arguably the greatest running back of all time. And had he not retired 4-5 years too soon, there simply wouldn’t be an argument. He probably would have finished with close to 20,000 career rushing yards, which would be an untouchable record.
But that’s not all! Mike Utley dealt with injuries his first two seasons, but he was trending toward a very solid career before he was tragically paralyzed on the field in 1991. Ray Crockett was a terrific cornerback who never made a Pro Bowl, but probably should have. He became a full-time starter for the Lions in 1991, when he racked up six interceptions and 86 tackles. He later won two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos, and his 198 games played as a corner ranks 12th in NFL history. Lawrence Pete and Jason Phillips both played about 60 career games as reserves. And while Rodney Peete certainly wasn’t a great starting quarterback, he managed to survive in the NFL for 15 years.