Detroit Lions draft regrets: Top 5 ‘ones who got away’

Credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images /
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Fred Biletnikoff, Oakland Raiders
Fred Biletnikoff, Oakland Raiders (Photo by Michael Zagaris/Getty Images) /

1. Fred Biletnikoff- Wide Receiver (1965)

Remember how I mentioned that Charles Rogers won the Biletnikoff Award when he was at Michigan State? It’s the most prestigious award that a wide receiver can win besides the Heisman Trophy. Calvin Johnson won it too. So did Golden Tate.

A lot of people don’t know much about the man behind the award, and I’ll admit I didn’t know much about Biletnikoff or that the Lions had any connection to him before I started researching for this piece. What I found though, was enough to convince me that the Lions as we know them today, with the frustration, losing, talks of curses and ‘S.O.L’, had Biletnikoff joined the Lions in 1965.

Coming out of Florida State, Biletnikoff was undersized and not known for his speed, but had been a two-way star throughout college, as a receiver and defensive back (sort of a Pre-Deion Sanders).  With flowing hair and a moustache that was more Prefontaine than Prime Time, Biletnikoff went on to a Hall of Fame career as a receiver for the Oakland Raiders. Among his pro accomplishments:

  • Two time All-Pro, six time Pro Bowl selection.
  • 76 career touchdown catches, just seven fewer than Calvin Johnson, at a time when NFL teams didn’t really throw it like that.
  • Super Bowl XI MVP
  • Ranked the #3 Raider of All-Time in an NFL Films special.

Lions drafted Instead: Actually, the Lions did draft Fred Biletnikoff, in the third round of 1965. Think Kenny Golladay was a steal of a third round wide receiver? Imagine the Lions getting that type of career out of Golladay.

The only problem was that somebody else drafted Biletnikoff too. This is just a few years before the AFL-NFL merger, with two separate drafts and an opportunity for a player to sign with either team. Even though the Lions weren’t ‘the Lions’ yet, and even though the AFL was seen as vastly inferior at the time, Biletnikoff took that route. The Fords (who weren’t ‘the Fords’ yet in the minds of fans) couldn’t get him to sign.

He signed with the Raiders instead of Detroit, taking a $150,000 signing bonus (about $1.2 million today) to do so. While Biletnikoff enjoyed a wildly successful 14-year career in Oakland, the Lions only made the playoffs one time during that stretch, and as the years slowly piled up, the frustration in Motown did too.

Had Biletnikoff indeed played for the Lions, a long stretch of near misses (they finished second in the division seven times in a row around the start of the 70s) could have been tipped into at least a few magic moments. We might be looking at a few of those quarterbacks differently, Greg Landry in particular. The 1970 team would have had a very good chance to win Super Bowl IV.

Next. The Detroit Lions top 10 plays of the past decade. dark

Going even into today, had Biletnikoff been added to those Lions rosters of the 70s, Matthew Stafford may have played his entire career facing far less pressure and desperation from the famished fan base. The Detroit Lions of today might be struggling, but the organization might not be infamous, which is why I’ve listed Biletnikoff as the top draft regret in Detroit Lions history.