Barry Sanders is the greatest player in Lions history, hands down. He is arguably one of the greatest running backs in the history of the NFL. His junior season at Oklahoma State is stuff of legend in the college football landscape. In his lone season as the Cowboys starting tailback, he ran all over the Big Eight, giving the Pokes their only Heisman Trophy to date.
Frankly, Sanders tops so many all-time lists in Lions lore. However, to say that he is a draft-day steal, when considering he went No. 3 overall to Detroit, might be a bit of a stretch. That being said, two teams did pass on arguably the most elusive running back the NFL has ever seen.
After tearing it up at Oklahoma State, the Lions used their No. 3 overall pick to select Sanders. The two teams that passed on him were the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers. You can’t really blame the Cowboys, as they took quarterback Troy Aikman No. 1 overall out of UCLA. As the star signal-caller for “The Triplets”, Aikman has his rightful bust in Canton.
However, the Packers took workout warrior Tony Mandarich out of Michigan State at No. 2. Mandarich played only four years in Green Bay after being cut by the the Packers in 1992. Substance abuse and steroid issues have Mandarich labeled as one of the biggest busts in NFL history. He would return to the gridiron in 1996 to play three years with the Indianapolis Colts before retiring after the 1998 NFL season.
Rounding out the top-five of the 1989 NFL Draft were two other Pro Football Hall of Famers. The late Derrick Thomas went No. 4 to the Kansas City Chiefs out of Alabama. Deion Sanders went No. 5 to the Atlanta Falcons out of Florida State. Aikman, both Sanders men and Thomas are among some of the very best to play their respective positions in the NFL.
So yes, Barry Sanders can still be considered a draft-day steal and a very good one at that for the Lions. His talent was obvious, but apparently not obvious enough for the Lions’ division rival to draft him. While Green Bay would achieve great success with Brett Favre as the Packers quarterback, could you even begin to imagine how dominant they would have been if Sanders was on the team?
Of course, you don’t want to imagine that. The Lions and Packers are bitter rivals, which makes the 1989 draft-day decision by Green Bay all the more compelling. Detroit didn’t have to think, as Sanders fell right in the Lions’ lap. But what was Green Bay doing?
You have to remember that before Favre arrived in 1992, Green Bay was one of the most dysfunctional organizations in football. The Packers would figure it out later in the decade, but they missed out on a 10-time Pro Bowl running back who had 15,269 yards and 99 rushing touchdowns in 10 seasons.