Detroit Lions: Top 5 leading rushers since Barry Sanders

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Photo by David Banks/Getty Images for EA Sports

Kerryon Johnson enters 2019 looking to rewrite 20 years of run game futility for the Detroit Lions. Here’s a quick look back at those who came before him.

It’s no stretch to say that the Detroit Lions haven’t had a viable run game for two decades now. However, the promising start to Kerryon Johnson‘s career, as well as a strong free agent signing in C.J. Anderson, has led to increased optimism in the Lions’ rushing attack.

With Matt Patricia’s ball control philosophy and Darrell Bevell calling the plays, 2019 looks to be the year for the tide to finally turn in the ground department.

Detroit has two very capable runners on the roster (three, depending on how you feel about Zach Zenner) heading into the season, and potentially a franchise player in Johnson (knocking on wood like 50 times after saying that). If ever there was a time to reverse 20 years of ineptitude in the run game, that time has to finally be now, doesn’t it?

To officially close the book on this unfortunate chapter, I compiled a list of the team’s Top 5 leading rushers since the unexpected retirement of Barry Sanders on the eve of training camp in 1999.

A few disturbing facts

Since Barry Sanders retired 20 years ago…

  • The Lions have finished the year with more rushing yards than their opponents only twice (2013 and 2014).
  • The Lions have finished dead last in the NFL in rushing yards four separate times (2003, 2006, 2015, 2017).
  • Detroit’s run game hasn’t ranked in the top half of the league at the end of the season a single time.

A few names from the past

Finding a capable replacement for Barry has been difficult, to say the least. Here are some of the more memorable ‘next man up’ candidates that didn’t make the Top 5 list.

  • Ron Rivers– In his first game as a starter, Rivers actually did a decent Barry impression, with 96 yards and 6.0 ypc in an opening day win. Alas, he only gained 200 more yards for the rest of the 1999 season.
  • Ameer Abdullah– This guy actually drew comparisons to Barry Sanders coming into his rookie year in 2015. With nearly as many fumbles as touchdowns, Abdullah didn’t turn out to be the second coming after all.
  • Jahvid Best Probably my personal favorite Lions running back post-Barry. Jahvid had blinding speed and ripped off some huge plays in his short time, before concussions ended his career after only 22 games. Then he went on to be an Olympic sprinter at Rio 2016, a great silver lining for a very likable player.

And now, the Detroit Lions’ Top 5 leading rushers since Barry Sanders:

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