As we slowly make our way towards the upcoming season, I thought it would be fun to pick out the 10 greatest Detroit Lions of the 21st century… I was wrong, this was a pain in the ass. So, what did I do? I decided to roll with the top 13 since apparently, I enjoy pain!
Shockingly enough, there aren’t that many great Lions from 2001 until now. This list would’ve been a lot easier as the top 13 worst Lions of the 21st Century, but I digress. There are rules I placed on myself for this list, mainly that the player has to have played at least half of his career in the 21st Century, which knocks out guys like Herman Moore, yes a great Lion, but one who did his damage in the 90’s, and looked like a shell of himself in 2000 and 2001.
So, without further ado, I give you the Top 13 greatest Lions of the 21st Century:
13Ernie Sims (2006-2009) Linebacker
Jumped out the gate like a ball of fire, tallying over 100 tackles in each of his first three years, while playing every game. His fourth and final year in Detroit saw him only start half the season and play in 11 of 16 games while racking up only 49 tackles. Of his 8-year career, his first three with Detroit were far and away his best years.
12Cliff Avril (2008-2012) Defensive End
Avril was Mr. Dependable while playing in Honolulu Blue, averaging eight sacks per year (which is better than you think considering he only had 10.5 sacks in his first two years combined). His time in Detroit began with the (im)perfect season of 0-16, and as a DE there is only so much you can do to help a team win. He missed only five games in his five years with Detroit, before leaving for greener pastures in Seattle, where he helped the Seahawks win their first Super Bowl, decimating Peyton Manning and the Broncos 43-8. In that game, Avril deflected two passes and knocked Peyton on his ass a couple of times to boot.
11Stephen Tulloch (2011-2015) Linebacker
Tulloch, outside of the 2014 season, where he only played three games, started every game for the Lions. And in those four years where he played every game, he never had less than 107 tackles and averaged 116 tackles per season. He also averaged two sacks per season in his five years as a Lion.
10Glover Quin (2013-2016) Defensive Back
While Quin has only had 4 years in a Lions jersey, he has made the most of those years, racking up 16 INTs, a TD, and averaging 66 tackles per year. He has not missed a game as a Lion and compared to his secondary mate, Darius Slay, Quin’s numbers blow Slay’s out of the water: 16 INTs to six for Slay, 66 tackles per year compared to 49 for Slay.
9Golden Tate (2014-Pres.) Wide Receiver
While it’s only been 3 years, Tate has made a big impact as a Lion. Averaging over 1,000 yards per season and never missing a game. His touchdowns should be higher and his yards per game could be better, but as far as Lions wide receivers are concerned, he is far and away the second-best 21st Century Lion behind Calvin Johnson.
8Dre Bly (2003-2006) Defensive Back
A Super Bowl Champion as a rookie on the St. Louis Rams, even Bly admits his best work happened while in Detroit. In his four years in Motown Bly racked up 19 interceptions, two touchdowns and played in all but nine games in his Detroit career. And in three of his four years as a Lion, he made the Pro Bowl, twice as a starter and once more as an alternate.
7Jeff Backus (2001-2012) Offensive Tackle
Started every game of his career except for one in his final season. Started a franchise record 186 games until missing the Thanksgiving Day game of his final season due to a hamstring injury. From his time at the University of Michigan until his time ended as a Detroit Lion, Jeff Backus started every game, except that one. Despite all of his toughness and grit, Backus only had one winning season in his 12 years.
“More than the streak, he’s a person you can count on,” Dominic Raiola said. “His accountability level is unbelievable. I don’t think it’s the streak. I think it’s he wants to be out there with us.”
6Dominic Raiola (2001-2014) Center
Raiola only missed four games in 2008 and one game in 2014. During his long tenure in Detroit, he started a club-record 203 games, and 104 of those were in a row before fracturing his thumb in 2014. While the offensive line has always had its issues in Detroit (just look up Barry Sanders’ career), Raiola was a constant presence. And as a center, to stay healthy and play as many games as he did, that enough is worthy of making this list.
5Ndamukong Suh (2010-2014) Defensive Tackle
Suh was the sign that things were finally changing in Detroit. No longer were we drafting as many wide receivers as possible, a la the Matt Millen era. We were finally going to take a talent in the trenches. We were taking someone with a bit of an edge. Someone who would drag us, kicking and screaming, into a becoming a formidable opponent and not just a laughing stock from week to week. Suh came out guns blazing, tallying 10 sacks and an interception his rookie year. Stepping on Quarterbacks, stepping on linemen, stepping on referees if he had to. His 5 years in Detroit were surrounded by nitpickers and naysayers, questioning his integrity and just how dirty of a player he was, but he was a force to be reckoned with on most Sundays. His four years after his rookie campaign were not as exciting, as his sacks dipped from 10 to four his second year, and he ended up averaging six-and-a-half sacks in the four years after his hot start.
But as far as 21st century Lions are concerned, none have been more polarizing than Suh, none attracted the media attention quite like Suh (including Megatron). His five years in Detroit will always be filled with what-ifs, but for all his detractors, Suh only missed two games, and Detroit had two of its best seasons while Suh controlled the defensive line (a 10-6 record in 2010, and an 11-5 record in 2014). That’s two of the three winningest seasons Detroit has had, period, since the turn of the century.
4DeAndre Levy (2009-2016) Linebacker
Prior to the 2015 season, Levy was a mainstay on the Lions defense. Missing only seven games from ‘09-‘14. He racked up over 100 tackles in 2011 and 2013, and over 150 tackles in 2014. In 2013 he had six interceptions (that’s insane for a linebacker) and he had at least one interception every year from 2009-‘14.
3Matthew Stafford (2009-Pres.) Quarterback
We all know the problems the Lions have had at QB over the years: Rodney Peete, Scott Mitchell, Charlie Batch, Joey Harrington, Jon Kitna… the list goes on and on. And while there may be arguments as to whether or not Stafford is elite (he’s not), there are a few things Lions fans cannot argue. Stafford is a warrior (see game vs. Cleveland week 11 of the 2009 season), Stafford has a cannon for an arm, and Stafford is far and away the best quarterback Detroit has had since Bobby Layne.
He has started every game since 2011 when he threw for over 5,000 yards. In fact, since 2011, Stafford is averaging over 4,500 yards a season. His average of 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions per year are not eye-popping, but his 10 interceptions last year are the lowest total for a season by him and might be a hint that his decision-making has improved.
2Calvin Johnson (2007-2015) Wide Receiver
Only missed nine games in a nine-year career with the Lions. Megatron averaged over 15 yards per catch for his career, along with averaging over 100 yards per game from 2011-2013. He set the all-time single-season receiving record with 1,964 yards in 2012. He’s in the top-30 all-time in receiving yards despite playing only nine years.
A three-time All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowler, Johnson was everything we hoped he’d be and more… until he wasn’t. Just like Barry before him, Calvin had enough of getting his head kicked in while playing for the hapless Lions and decided to leave the game of football after the Lions refused to let him out of his contract.
1Jason Hanson (1992-2012) Kicker
And the Number One Detroit Lion of the 21st Century is… “Automatic” Hanson.
Jason Hanson played every game of every season except for one in 2005 and missing half the season in 2010. He literally only missed nine games in a 21-year career. In 1995 Hanson went 48 for 48 on extra points (best season) and 28 for 34 on Field Goals, including his career-best 56-yarder, while scoring 132 points.
In his final season, Hanson turned back the clock and kicked 38 for 38 on extra points, went 32 for 36 on Field Goal tries, while scoring the most points in any of his 21 seasons, finishing with 134 pts. He has the fourth-most Field Goals made in NFL history (495), with only Morten Andersen, Gary Anderson, and Adam Vinatieri having more. He is seventh most all-time on the extra points made list with 665. He’s third on the career-scoring list at 2,150 points. And Hanson became the first player to play 300 games with one franchise, finishing with 327.
So there you have it folks, the 10 (plus three) greatest Detroit Lions of the 21st Century. Disagree? Have fun going through the rosters from 2001 until now and finding some that were better. Oh… and have fun going down memory lane of bust after bust that once wore the Lions’ Honolulu Blue.
*All stats obtained via Pro Football Reference.