Detroit Lions Hall of Fame RB Barry Sanders explains his thoughts on Kerryon Johnson and the Lions offense at the Super Bowl, Feb. 1, 2019 in Atlanta.
Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press

It’s a debate Barry Sanders wanted no part in — who’s the best Detroit Lions running back since, well, him.

“I don’t know,” Sanders said sheepishly at the Super Bowl last week. “I can’t say.”

Frankly, there aren’t a lot of options – well, good options at least.

The Lions have had 12 different leading rushers in the 20 seasons since Sanders retired and just three of those backs have eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing in a single year.

More: Watch the epic ‘NFL 100’ Super Bowl ad featuring Barry

James Stewart had 1,000-yard seasons in both 2000 and 2002, then injured his shoulder in the 2003 preseason and never played again. Kevin Jones ran for 1,133 yards as a rookie in 2004, but suffered a Lisfranc injury the following season and was out of the league by 2009. And Reggie Bush was the last Lions running back to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in 2013, though he came to Detroit near the end of his career.

Kerryon Johnson, who was named Lions Rookie of the Year on Thursday by the Detroit Sports Media association, was on pace to join Stewart, Jones and Bush in the 1,000-yard club before a knee injury cut short his season in November.

Johnson said last month that he’s fully recovered from that injury and already training for the 2019 season. And while he played in just 10 games as a rookie, Sanders said he saw enough from Johnson to believe he can finally provide the organization some much-needed stability at the position.

The Lions haven’t had the same players lead them in rushing yards in back-to-back seasons since Jahvid Best in 2010-11, and have had seven different leading rushers in the last eight years.

“I think he’s in a good situation,” Sanders said of Johnson. “He’s got a fantastic quarterback that he’s playing with and you look at the yards he put up and some of the big games he had then you would just think that he can really be a great addition.

“Obviously, it’s just one year and next year will say a lot because it always — you always have to see how that guy who has some success his first year, how he’s going to come back the next year, how hungry he’s going to be, focused he’s going to be and that kind of thing. And so yeah, the sophomore year’s a big year.”

Johnson had an impressive rookie season with 641 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 118 carries, though he missed the final six weeks with a knee injury.

He started just seven games, with the Lions managing his workload early in the season alongside veteran LeGarrette Blount, but finished second in the league with a 5.4-yard-per-carry average and had two 100-yard games, the first Lions back to accomplish that feat since Bush in 2013.

“I think he looks promising,” Sanders said. “I thought he handled himself well. I forgot how many games he played, but out of the rookie running backs he looked as good as any of them, other than (Rookie of the Year) Saquon (Barkley), obviously. But yeah, you would figure that he would be a big part of our plans going forward.”

If Johnson stays healthy, he should have no problem going down as the best Lions back since Sanders.

For now, that distinction probably goes to either Stewart or Jones.

Stewart ran for 2,890 yards and 15 touchdowns in his three seasons in Detroit and was the Lions’ last workhorse runner with 339 carries in 2000. Jones, Kevin Smith, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell are the only other Lions backs to top 200 carries in a season since Sanders retired.

Jones ran for 3,067 yards and 24 touchdowns in four seasons with the Lions, but only averaged more than 4 yards per carry as a rookie. He finished his career in 2008 with the Chicago Bears, but never regained his pre-injury form.

Injuries also cut short the promising careers of Best and Mikel Leshoure, both high draft picks who played in less than 25 games for the team, and they perhaps contributed to Ameer Abdullah’s aborted run with the team.

Johnson has his own injury history to consider. If he can overcome that, the Lions should have a formidable rushing game. If not, it likely will be more of the same.

“Just imagine how easy is that for defenses playing against you (when you don’t have a running game),” Sanders said. “If you don’t have a legitimate running game, especially if you’re talking about, look at the Bears defense. It’s like, come on, man. You don’t want to be in a situation where you’re taking candy from babies, so to speak.”


Lions safety Glover Quin was named the team’s Media Good Guy Award winner Thursday, his second time receiving the award. Quin was honored for his cooperation fulfilling media obligations. At a time when players often dodge their media obligations, Quin made himself available every Wednesday, often for 45 minutes. He has one season left on his contract, but with a $7.9 million cap hit and $500,000 roster bonus due next month, the Lions need to make a decision on whether to bring him back for 2019.

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