This has been a spring of dreams for Detroit Lions fans, as the team’s late surge last season — 8-2 in their final 10 games following a 1-6 start — and canny free-agent pickups have made the franchise the preseason front-runner in the NFC North.
Lions fans are hoping that as the NFL draft gets going in Kansas City, Missouri — next year in Detroit! — from Thursday-Saturday, the dream offseason continues. The Lions enter the draft with nine picks, ranging from No. 6 overall — a spot that has produced 14 Hall of Famers — to No. 194 (which has produced, understandably, zero HOF’ers).
And so, in keeping with those dreams, here’s a look at the best player taken all-time at each of the Lions’ nine draft spots.
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The Syracuse star, drafted in 1957, needed just nine seasons — four of 12 games, five of 14 games — to rush for 12,312 yards, which is incredibly still 11th in NFL history. He led the NFL in rushing in eight of those seasons, with seven of them topping 1,250 yards — again, in much shorter seasons — all while averaging 5.2 yards a carry and scoring 106 touchdowns. He retired after rushing for 1,544 yards and 17 TDs in 1965, off to make movies in Hollywood and, six years later, induction into the Hall.
No. 18: DB Paul Krause, Washington
A Flint native who starred at Iowa, Krause went in the second round in 1964’s NFL draft (only 14 teams) and the 12th round of the AFL draft (to the Denver Broncos). He started with a bang, picking off 12 passes as a rookie en route to finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting (before the award was split into offensive and defensive awards). He kept it up, too, with at least five picks in nine of his first 11 seasons, eight Pro Bowl nods and 81 career interceptions, the most in NFL history. He was inducted into the Hall in 1998.
No. 48: DE Howie Long, Oakland Raiders
Before he was a fixture in the Fox Sports studio, Long terrorized QBs at Villanova to earn a second-round pick from the Raiders in 1981. The Massachusetts native had 13 sacks over his first two NFL seasons combined, then matched that in a star turn in 1983 with the first of eight Pro Bowl nods over 13 seasons. Long finished with 91½ sacks — though only 84 were official, with the recognition of the stat beginning in 1982 — and was inducted into the Hall in 2000.
The Bears jumped the gun a bit, nabbing the Maryland star in the 1953 draft before he played his senior season at Maryland in 1954. It paid off in his second season, when Jones moved from tackle to guard and made seven straight Pro Bowl squads while becoming the Bears’ captain on offense. He missed just two games over his first 11 seasons, even after shifting to defense in 1962. That season, he played both ways, then moved full-time to defense for four more seasons in ’63, when the Bears went 11-1-2 and won the NFL title.
A defender? A punter? Why not both? That is exactly what the Eagles landed in 1954’s seventh round in the SMU product. Norton had five interceptions as a free safety his rookie season to finish sixth in UPI’s rookie of the year vote. He didn’t take over as the Eagles’ punter until his third season (1957), when he led the NFL in punts (68) and punt yards (2,798). That was also the first of five Pro Bowl nods as a defender, thanks to four interceptions (including a 99-yard return for a TD). After a salary dispute with the Eagles in 1959, he was dealt to the Cardinals and led the NFL in interceptions (10) and average punt yards (45.6). He’s still the only player in NFL history with two separate four-pick games, doing it in 1960 against Washington and in 1961 against Pittsburgh.
No. 152: S Karl Kassulke, Detroit Lions
Just four 152nd picks have made a Pro Bowl, but we’ll go with the Lions pick who did it, albeit with the Minnesota Vikings. After the Lions took the Drake alumnus in the 11th round in 1963, he went on to play 10 seasons, all with the Vikes. His best season came in 1970, when he made the Pro Bowl after picking off three passes over 14 games. Kassulke’s career was cut short, unfortunately, by a motorcycle accident on the way to training camp in 1973, leaving him paralyzed below the waist.
With this pick acquired from the Atlanta Falcons in early April’s Jeff Okudah trade, the Lions can only hope to snag a defensive back as good as Scott, who was taken in the seventh round out of Georgia in 1970. A key part of the Dolphins’ famed “No-Name Defense” of the early 1970s, Scott made five straight Pro Bowls from 1971-75, a run that also included winning Super Bowl MVP as the Dolphins completed their 1972 perfect season. He played just nine seasons but finished with 49 interceptions, thanks to making at least three picks in every season he played.
No. 183: RB Bo Jackson, L.A. Raiders
After going No. 1 overall in 1986 but refusing to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — and spending the summer playing baseball with the Kansas City Royals, a pretty good fallback plan — the Auburn star fell to the seventh round in 1987. He eventually signed a deal that would let him not report until after the end of the 1987 MLB season. Seven games that season was enough for Jackson to finish second in OROY voting, thanks in part to a coming-out party on “Monday Night Football” on Nov. 30, 1987, in which he steamrolled Brian Bosworth and the Seattle Seahawks for 221 yards on just 18 carries. Jackson played just four seasons and 38 games in the NFL before a hip injury limited him to baseball only (and filming Nike commercials).
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No. 194: RB Leonard Thompson, Detroit Lions
Entranced by his speed at Oklahoma State — he ran the 60-yard dash at the NCAA indoor track and field championships in Detroit as a senior — the Lions took Thompson in the eighth round in 1975. But he touched the ball just once as a rookie. A move to wideout in second year in the league aided his development, as did his work on special teams. “There was a time when I was doing a little bit of everything,” he told the Freep. “I was a running back, kick returner, wide receiver, and I worked the special teams — punt and kick coverage. I was on and off the field on my own turn, and a lot of time on somebody else’s.” His career was derailed by a series of injuries in the early 1980s, but in all, Thompson played in 175 games for the Lions and had 277 receptions for 4,682 yards and 35 touchdowns, ranking 14th, eighth and tied for fourth, respectively, among the franchise’s leaders.
Contact Ryan Ford at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @theford.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Lions’ 2023 NFL draft: The best picks at their spots all-time