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Top 10 Detroit Lions of All-Time: Who is the Greatest Lion of them All?

The greatest Lions of all time!
Publish Date: 05/05/2024
Fact checked by: Simon Briffa

The Detroit Lions have won two playoff games so far this season, the same as they had won from 1957 to 2022. I thought it would be a good time to look at the history of the Detroit Lions, and if you guys by this top ten list, the Lions have a legendary tradition. Active players are not included on this list, which is why you won’t see Matthew Stafford on it. Many for years have claimed that the Lions have been bad for so long because they have one of the worst owners in NFL history, but that all seems to be changing.


I guess we can’t put a guy on the list because of Super Bowl wins, but an NFL Championship from the 1950s is the same in my book, so a few of those guys are on this list. Stats are a factor, but making the players around you better is also a big deal.

10) Yale Lary, DB

He was a dangerous fixture at safety for the entirety of his 11-year career, but he also made a living as a punter and punt returner.

He was also an exceptional punt returner, scoring three return TDs to complement his three defensive touchdowns. However, Lary was perhaps most exceptional as a punter: Lary’s average punt length during his career was 6.0% longer than the league average, the fourth-best rate in history (Ray Guy was considered by many to be the greatest punter ever and he was only 5.2% better). Furthermore, Lary’s punts helped create “hang time”, staying airborne so long that opponents couldn’t attempt any returns.

Lary earned nine Pro Bowl selections and six All-Pro selections overall. Had he not served in Korea during the 1954 and 1955 seasons, Lary would likely have seen two additional Pro Bowl selections and All-Pro selections, as well as helping lead his Lions team to another title win or two.

  • 3 Time NFL Champion
  • 9 Time Pro Bowler
  • 1950s All-Decade Team
  • Detroit Lions All-Time Team
Video: Yale Lary Highlights

Yale Lary Highlights


9) Lem Barney, DB

Defensive Back and Returner. Lem Barney led the NFL with ten interceptions as a rookie in 1967, returning three for touchdowns while serving as a full-time punt returner on the Detroit Lions team and earning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.

It was later in his rookie season that he also became a primary returner, returning a kickoff for a touchdown and punt returns for touchdowns each of the subsequent two seasons before earning seven Pro Bowl selections and consecutive first-team All-Pro selections during 1968 and ’69 before abruptly retiring due to involvement in an international drug smuggling ring which scared off NFL teams away. Barney is considered one of the Greatest Cornerbacks in NFL history!

  • NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year 1967
  • 7 Time Pro Bowler
  • NFL Interception Leader 1967
  • Detroit Lions All-Time Team
  • 1960s All-Decade Team
Video: Lem Barney Highlights

Lem Barney Highlights

8) Dutch Clark

Clark announced his plans to leave after leading the Lions to two championships in 1935 and 1936. Shortly afterwards, Head Coach Potsy Clark resigned to become head coach for the Brooklyn Dodgers; as such, Clark assumed additional responsibilities of head coaching for the Lions.

All-Pro status had been awarded every season since he had joined; leading virtually all categories tracked at that time was an extraordinary accomplishment! Clark was inducted into the inaugural class of both the College and Pro Football Hall of Fames.

  • NFL Champion
  • 3 Time NFL Rushing Yards Leader
  • 3 Time NFL Scoring Leader
  • 1930s All-Decade Team
  • Detroit Lions All-Time Team
Video: Earl

Earl “Dutch” Clark – The Best All Around Player in NFL History

7) Lou Creekmur, OL

Creekmur was pivotal in Layne and Walker’s protection, starting at left guard his first two seasons before moving over to left tackle for the rest of his career. From 1950 through 1958 – including both preseason and postseason games – he played every Lions game, preseason or postseason, including preseason. Lou played in some of the greatest Lions vs Packers games ever played.

He went on to appear in eight consecutive Pro Bowls, seven straight All-Pro selections, an early retirement at 31 (but was persuaded back after the Lions started 0-4), helping them finish 3-4-1 and totalling 68-44-4 regular season record with five rings in total for his time on field 68-44-4 overall record against only five rings for himself!

  • 3 Time NFL Champion
  • 8 Time pro Bowler
  • Detroit Lions All-Time Team

6) Alex Karras, DT

He missed just one game on the field due to injury during his twelve NFL seasons. Additionally, he earned All-Pro honors in the first four years before and following his suspension for gambling – likely costing him eight straight All-Pro selections. He did get his eight in 1969. Furthermore, this gambling suspension may have impacted Canton, who did not call until 2020 to award him with induction into their Hall of Fame.

Karras never earned playoff eligibility until his last game for the Lions against the Dallas Cowboys, when his defense performed admirably, but they lost by an absurd score of 5-0. The Lions were the better team that day but couldn’t get in the endzone.

  • 4 Time Pro Bowler
  • 1960s All-Decade Team
  • Detroit Lions All-Decade Team
  • Detroit Lions All-Time Team
Video: Alex Karras selected to Pro Football Hall of Fame Centennial Class

Alex Karras selected to Pro Football Hall of Fame Centennial Class

5) Jack Christiansen, DB

Bobby Layne wasn’t solely responsible for the success of the 1950s Lions; on both sides of the ball, they boasted Hall-of-Famers like safety Jack Christiansen (Chris’s Crew). Christiansen won six consecutive first-team All-Pro awards and five Pro Bowl selections during his time with them. He amassed 46 interceptions over an eight-year career, leading the league with 12 in 1953 (still the fifth-most ever) and ten more in 1957.

At his best, he was also an exceptional punt returner, returning two punts for touchdowns during his rookie season and twice again on Thanksgiving, setting an NFL record of eight career punt return touchdowns he still holds today (he currently ranks fourth all-time). Additionally, this all-around talent ran two touchdowns in 1952, earning recognition on both sides of the ball with NFL 100 All-Time Team selection in 2020.

  • 3 Time NFL Champion
  • 5 Time Pro Bowler
  • 2 Time NFL Interception Leader
  • NFL 100th Anniversary Team
  • 1950s All-Decade Team
  • Detroit Lions All-Time Team
Video: Jack Christiansen Highlights

Jack Christiansen Highlights

4) Calvin Johnson

Megatron made his mark during his second season after an underwhelming rookie campaign, leading the league in receiving touchdowns (12). Unfortunately for Megatron and his teammates saw a perfect 0-16 team. Though these struggles limited his accolades at first, in 2010, Megatron was eventually recognized with Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro status and set personal bests for catches (96), touchdowns (16) and yards (1681 – sixth highest ever at that time in NFL history and only five short of Herman Moore’s team record set back in 1995.

Megatron would set a record with 1,964 receiving yards that season; unfortunately, though, his Lions lost eight games that year, and incredibly, Johnson only scored five touchdowns all year. Megatron earned first-team All-Pro honors once again, amassing over 1400 yards while his Lions team kept losing. In 2014, the Lions won eleven games, their second-highest win total ever up to that point. Still, they were ultimately defeated in the playoffs, and Megatron experienced an ineffective year, catching only 71 passes for 1077 yards without earning All-Pro honours. Similar to Barry Sanders, he enjoyed an equally impressive season in 2015 and announced his retirement after the season at age 30.

  • 6 Time Pro Bowler
  • 2 Time NFL Receiving Yards Leader
  • NFL Receptions Leader 2012
  • NFL Receiving Touchdown Leader 2008
  • 2010s All-Decade Team
  • Detroit Lions All-Time Team
Video: Calvin Johnson Hall-of-Fame Highlights

Calvin Johnson Hall-of-Fame Highlights

3) Bobby Layne, QB

We’re talking about a guy who delivered championships to the Detroit Lions. If that alone doesn’t make him one of the greats, what does?

Layne led the NFL in passing attempts and yards during his inaugural year with Detroit. The following season, he led in completions touchdowns, was a Pro Bowl selection and made history by becoming the second-best QB after Cleveland’s Otto Graham; these teams would go on to meet each other three more times for the NFL Championship.

In 1952, Layne established himself as one of the premier quarterbacks in football by leading his Lions to an 8-2 record and earning first-team All-Pro honors. Despite throwing four interceptions during their semi-final win against the Rams, he emerged victorious over Graham and the Browns to claim the first championship over Graham the following week. Layne would make three consecutive Pro Bowl appearances and beat Cleveland again in the championship game before failing in the third attempt against Cleveland by throwing six interceptions that caused a 56-10 loss for the Lions.

  • 3 Time NFL Champion
  • 8 Time Pro Bowler
  • 2 Time NFL Passing Yards Leader
  • NFL Passing Touchdown Leader 1951
  • NFL Completion Percentage Leader 1955
  • NFL Scoring Leader 1956
  • 1950s All-Decade Team
  • Detroit Lions All-Time Team
Video: Bobby Layne Highlights

Bobby Layne Highlights


2) Joe Schmidt, LB

Schmidt is considered to be the first true middle linebacker, earning eight first-team All-Pro honors over his eighteen seasons as an All-Pro player for Detroit Lions and winning ten Pro Bowlers awards, including championship victories with them in 1953 and 1957, where his two interceptions helped lead them to an easy 59-14 victory in that title game. Had he known Detroit would only win one more playoff game during their seven-decade-plus championship drought, he likely would have retired sooner.

Schmidt was one of the all-time greats in his position and needed to be honoured like the rest of those 1950s lions. He was the best player on those Lions Championship teams.

  • 2 Time NFL Champion
  • 10 Time Pro Bowler
  • 1950s All-Decade Team
  • 100th Anniversary Team
  • Detroit Lions All-Time Team
Video: Joe Schmidt: A Lions Legend

Joe Schmidt: A Lions Legend


1) Barry Sanders, RB

Sanders would become a Pro Bowler and All-Pro in all ten seasons of his professional career – an unprecedented achievement that is unlikely ever to be repeated. In his sophomore campaign, he led the league in both rushing yards and touchdowns before going on to lead them all again the following year, as well as lead his Lions team back into playoff contention after having missed them since 1957; that season included one game against Minnesota where Sanders ran for 220 yards and four touchdowns!

In that 1991 season, Sanders helped lead the Lions to the NFC Championship, which was the first time since the 1950s, and they made the playoffs a few more times after that.

  • NFL MVP 1997
  • 2 Time NFL Offensive Player of the Year
  • NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year 1989
  • 10 Time Pro Bowler
  • 4 Time NFL Rushing Leader
  • NFL Rushing Touchdown Leader 1991
  • 1990s All-Decade Team
  • NFL 100th Anniversary Team
  • Detroit Lions All-Time Team
Video: Barry Sanders Mini-Movie: Untouchable with the Ball!

Barry Sanders Mini-Movie: Untouchable with the Ball!

Honorable Mentions

Doak Walker, RB

Walker won division titles, won championships, went to Pro Bowls, made All-Pro teams, was Rookie of the Year, and generally wreaked havoc on opposing defenses for his entire seven-year career.

Walker doesn’t come close to touching any modern-day rushing records, nor any records. But that’s more an issue of the era he played in, as well as his decision to retire early. In his time, Walker was unstoppable.

Dick “Night Train” Lane

Night Train was feared as a top cover corner and a vicious hitter. Night Train was such a dangerous player that the league has since outlawed many of the hits he was notorious for. Lane would be in the top ten, but he wasn’t with the Lions for his entire career.

Herman Moore

Moore was one of the most underrated Wide Receivers of all-time, on a different team in the 90s he may have been an all-time great, either way he was great for the Lions.

Charlie Sanders, TE

Sanders truly was a complete tight end. He not only caught everything thrown his way, but he was also a nasty, tenacious blocker. In my opinion, Sanders is one of the greatest tight ends to play the game.

Roger Brown, DE

Namely, Brown was part of the Lions’ “Fearsome Foursome” defensive line along with Alex Karras, Sam Williams and Darris McCord.

That group was responsible for the “Thanksgiving Day Massacre” against the Green Bay Packers, in which they got after Bart Starr for five sacks, including one for a safety.


Dick LeBeau, DB

LeBeau was a smooth operator on the field, capable of jumping a route and intercepting the ball when the quarterback didn’t even know he was there. His longevity was great, and he would go on to be an innovative defensive coordinator.

Billy Simms

If not for injuries Simms would go down as an all-time great at running back. The Lions became winners when Simms arrived, barely missing the playoffs in 1981, making it in 1982 and 1983. Simms is one of the greatest players in NFL history to have his career cut short because of injuries.

Chris Speilman

This dude was the epitome of a Linebacker in the mould of the great Joe Schmidt. he gave it everything he had on every play and is still a fan favorite. Even though he went to College at that school down south!

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