Where does Barry Sanders rank among all-time running back draft prospects?

Barry Sanders fulfilled all the promise he came into the NFL with, but where does he rank among all-time running back prospects in the draft?
Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Fortune hasn't always smiled on the Detroit Lions in the NFL Draft, but 1989 was one occasion it absolutely did. The division rival Green Bay Packers took one of the biggest busts in draft history, offensive tackle Tony Mandarich, No. 2 overall. That left a running back out of Oklahoma State named Barry Sanders for the Lions to take at No. 3 overall.

The only quarrel Lions' fans can have with Sanders is that he retired when he did, and in the fashion he did. He called it quits 10 seasons in, after nearly rushing for 1,500 yards in 1998. It would be unimaginable (if not impossible) now, but he sent a fax to the Wichita Eagle newspaper to publicly announce his retirement. The Amazon documentary "Bye Bye, Barry" did not offer the promised deeper insight into why he retired.

Sanders is still fourth on the NFL's all-time rushing list (15,259 yards). If he had hung on like all-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith did, he'd surely be the league's all-time leading rusher instead.

But Sanders also had a pretty good college career at Oklahoma State. After sharing time in the Cowboys' backfield with fellow future Pro Football Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas for a couple years, Sanders had the lead back role to himself in 1988. All he did then was rush for 2,628 yards and 37 touchdowns on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy.

When taking inventory of the best running backs of the last 30-40 years (or longer), Sanders is on the list for the college or NFL level.

But in the spirit of draft season, where does he rank among all-time running back draft prospects?

Barry Sanders takes lofty spot among all-time running back prospects

Jason Katz of Pro Football Network recently came out with his ranking of the top-12 running back draft prospects of all-time. "All-time" is narrowed to those drafted after 1980, since the perception of a player coming out of college gets harder to tab the further back you go. A back's NFL career had no bearing on the ranking.

Counting down from No. 12, here's how Katz's list starts.

12. Curt Warner, Penn State
11. Ricky Williams, Texas
10. Bijan Robinson, Texas
9. Marshall Faulk, San Diego State
8. Saquon Barkley, Penn State
7. LaDainian Tomlinson, TCU
6. Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma

5. Reggie Bush, USC
4. Edgerrin James, Miami (FL)

3. Eric Dickerson, SMU

Sanders comes in at No. 2.

"Imagine you’re playing Road to Glory mode on easy difficulty. That was Barry Sanders at Oklahoma State in 1988. He amassed 344 carries for 2,628 yards and 37 touchdowns that year, winning the Heisman in a landslide, and he’d ultimately land with the Detroit Lions via the third overall pick in 1989."

"What followed once Sanders hit the NFL stage? More dominance. He was an All-Pro in his first year and earned that distinction five other times in his career while also reaching the Pro Bowl 10 times. He’s fourth all-time in NFL rushing yards despite only playing 10 seasons, and he has a golden jacket to show for his accomplishments."

"Sanders’ legacy is strong enough that it speaks for him now, but his talent on tape was the source of his greatness. At 5’8″, 203 pounds, Sanders was a legitimate human joystick in crowds, with oily hips, extraordinary full-field vision, and gravity-defying balance through contact."

-Jason Katz, Pro Football Network

It's impossible to argue with No. 1 on the list-Bo Jackson. The 1985 Heisman Trophy winner out of Auburn was simply a transcendent athlete, and he stands as one of the most unique athletes we'll ever see. As good as he was at football, he was just as good at baseball.

Sanders is at best going to be No. 2 on any list of all-time draft prospects at the running back position (since 1980 or otherwise), behind Jackson. That he came in there is an acknowledgement of how sheerly dominant he was in his final season at Oklahoma State, when he had all the backfield work to himself.

Next. The 5 best running backs in Detroit Lions history. The 5 best running backs in Detroit Lions history. dark