The 20 best running backs in Detroit Lions history

No. 1 is obvious, but who else makes the list of the best running backs in Detroit Lions history?
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Dating back to their first season as an NFL franchise (1930, as the Portsmouth Spartans), the Detroit Lions have had some Hall of Fame talent at running back. There have also been some backs who did not fulfill the full extent of their promise, due to injuries, etc. A long drought without a 1,000-yard came to an end in 2022, when Jamaal Williams topped the mark for the Lions for the first time since Reggie Bush did it in 2013. Then David Montgomery did in 2023.

No. 1 on the list of the best running backs in Lions' history is too obvious to be named, but we will of course name him when we get there. The rest of the top-20 is more interesting to think about, and perhaps subject to the era someone grew up watching Lions' football.

Let's take a look at the general criteria for this ranking.

Criteria for selection










11. Nick Pietrosante




7. Ace Gutowsky

6. Altie Taylor

5. Dexter Bussey

Bussey spent his entire 11-year NFL career with the Lions (1974-1984). He led the team in rushing each year from 1975-1979, topping 1,000 yards from scrimmage in 1976, 1978 and 1980. He moved to fullback in 1980 to accommodate the notable addition of someone else on this list.

All Bussey did was top 1,000 total yards with an ahead of his time-looking 39 receptions as a fullback in that first year playing the position. He and Billy Sims combined for over 2,000 rushing yards in 1980. The team has topped 2,000 rushing yards in a season two other times, Barry Sanders' 2,000-yard campaign in 1997 and 2023 when David Motgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs led the way.

Via Mike O'Hara of the Lions' website back in 2020, Bussey talked about his position switch. He notably did not bulk up from the 195 pounds he played halfback at.

"It was easy from the switching standpoint", Bussey said, looking back 40 years to a pivotal career moment."

"The coaches and my teammates had the confidence that I could do it. As long as you're not afraid, you go at it, and it worked out."

Bussey became the Lions' all-time leading rusher in 1981, passing Altie Taylor, and he held that spot until 1984.

4. Mel Farr

The Lions took Farr seventh overall in the 1967 NFL Draft out of UCLA, and he promptly topped 1,100 yards from scrimmage on his way to winning Offensive Rookie of the Year. In 1968, he led the league in yards per touch (6.4). He was worthy of the nickname "Superstar", besides the snappy rhyme with his surname.

Farr would never quite replicate that rookie season, in a career impacted and shortened by injuries. But he did earn a second career Pro Bowl selection in 1970, as he rushed for 717 yards and nine touchdowns. After being traded to the Houston Oilers in 1974, he retired.

Starting at about the 48 second mark of the clip below, you can see Farr's speed on display.

After football, Farr became very successful as a car dealership owner with double-digit locations across multiple states.

3. Doak Walker

The man whose name is on the award given to college football's best running back did not have a long NFL career, relatively speaking, spending all six of his seasons (1950-1955) with the Lions. But he was a five-time Pro Bowl selection and a four-time All Pro over those half-dozens seasons, on his way to earning a Hall of Fame induction in 1986.

As a testament to his athleticism and versatility, Walker also did placekicking, punting and kick returning for the Lions, with an occasional pass attempt. But he was a pretty good dual threat running back too, with over 750 yards from scrimmage four times, so he gets a lofty spot on this list.

2. Billy Sims

Sims came to the Lions as a much-ballyhooed college prospect, as the first overall pick in 1980 with a Heisman Trophy (1978) on his college resume at Oklahoma. Right out of the gate, he did not disappoint.

Sims topped 200 total yards with three rushing touchdowns in his NFL debut. That set the tone for a big first season (1,313 rushing yards, a league-high 13 touchdowns; 51 receptions for 621 yards and three more touchdowns) as he (naturally) won Offensive Rookie of the Year and earned a Pro Bowl selection.

Sims had quite the encore in 1981, with 1,437 rushing yards and another 13 scores on the ground.

Sims played just nine games in 1982, but he still led the league with 206 touches and he earned a third straight Pro Bowl selection. He topped 1,000 yards on the ground again in 1983, while nearing 1,500 yards from scrimmage. A major right knee injury during the 1984 season wound up ending his career, after two years spent rehabbing before he gave up the effort and retired. A comeback attempt for the 1989 season never really got any serious traction with the Lions' brass at the time.

There's naturally a lot of "what might have been" with Sims' shortened career, and with modern medicine maybe it wouldn't have ended as quickly as it did. But the original No. 20 among Lions' great running backs easily sits at No. 2 on this list.

1. Barry Sanders

Had he not retired when he did, after 10 seasons (all with the Lions of course), there's a fair chance we'd be talking about Sanders as the NFL's all-time leading rusher. As it is he's fourth with 15,269 yards. Meanwhile, Emmitt Smith hung on as a shell of what he was at the end of15 total seasons to put up a little over 3,000 more yards (18,355) than Sanders did in his 10.

Two seasons along the lines of his final one (1,491 yards in 1998), plus a chunk of a third when he would have been 33 years old, and Sanders would have had more career yards than Smith. But, to paraphrase his unique retirement announcement, his desire to leave the game exceeded his desire to stay in it. And that had (and has) to be respected, even if it was massively disappointing for all NFL fans and

Sanders was a Pro Bowler in all 10 of his seasons. He led the league in rushing four times, and he was a six-time first-team All-Pro. In 1997, his second-to-last season as it turned out, he rushed for 2,053 yards and won NFL MVP. He was not someone who looked like he was near the end that year, and physically he wasn't.

Sanders never rushed for less than 1,100 yards in his career, and he had less 1,500 yards from scrimmage just once. Only Jim Brown has averaged more rushing yards per game in a career. As a sidenote, Billy Sims is eighth on that career yards per game list.

Sanders was simply on a different level, leaving defenders looking like they were in slow motion grasping for air. One of the all-time great running backs in NFL history will forever stand as the best running back in Lions' history.

Honorable Mentions: Altie Taylor (169-1975), Nick Pietrosante (1959-1965), Ace Gutowsky (1932-1938)