Commentary

Ndamukong Suh over Barry Sanders

Here's the case for Suh as the best damn draft pick in the history of the Detroit Lions

Originally Published: October 4, 2011
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

tbdAP Photo/Carlos OsorioThe Lions were losers before Ndamukong Suh arrived. They're undefeated right now. 'Nuff said.

Barry Sanders is the most electrifying player the Detroit Lions ever drafted.

To some, he's the best running back ever.

But to me, he isn't the Lions' best draft pick ever.

Ndamukong Suh is.

Yes, I know it's just Suh's second season in the NFL. Yes, I know his accomplishments have yet to come close to what Sanders achieved -- or, for that matter, to what a lot of previous Lions greats have done.

[+] EnlargeSuh
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesNdamukong Suh brings edge and attitude to a team that needed both.

But I still rank Suh, the defensive rookie of the year in 2010, ahead of Sanders.

Suh isn't just a better draft pick than Sanders because he might be the next Reggie White or, worst-case scenario, the next Warren Sapp. It's because Suh already seems to have done something Sanders never could: He's changed the Lions' losing culture or, at least, been the most important catalyst in that change.

Detroit is 4-0 and tied with the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers for the NFC North division lead, and that's a sentence I never expected to write.

The Lions' Monday night game against the Chicago Bears next week marks the first time in 10 years that Detroit will appear on "Monday Night Football." And the belief in the Lions was so strong in the preseason that when single-game tickets went on sale in August, the Bears' game sold out in five hours.

Maybe you're thinking, "So what? When Barry was the team's star player, the Lions appeared on 'Monday Night Football' and sold out plenty of games, too."

No debate there. Sanders put on a show throughout his whole career. In 1997, he gave us one of the finest seasons ever by a running back, rushing for 2,053 yards and winning the NFL MVP. Sanders, who is third on the NFL's all-time rushing list, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004.

Better career? Sanders wins easily. So far.

Bigger impact? I'll take Suh. Already.

Numbers are an important element in determining whether a draft pick is a success, but they aren't the only measuring stick.

When the Lions drafted Sanders third overall in 1989 (behind Troy Aikman and Tony Mandarich), losing was deeply embedded in the organization's DNA. Detroit was coming off a 4-12 season, and that was the fourth time in five years that the franchise had lost 10 or more games.

[+] EnlargeBarry Sanders
AP Photo/Phil MeyersBarry Sanders was one of the greatest backs the league has seen. But he wasn't necessarily a team leader.

During Sanders' 10-year career, the Lions won more than 10 games just three times, including in 1991, when they went 12-4 and lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins in the NFC Championship Game.

But there never seemed to be any real faith that the Lions could sustain that success. The fact that Sanders retired via fax in 1999 before he could get to the top of the NFL's all-time rushing list-- he was just 1,457 yards (one good season) behind then-leader Walter Payton at the time -- is the ultimate indication that he thought Detroit wouldn't be a serious contender in his foreseeable playing future.

"Barry was never the outspoken guy," says ESPN analyst Lomas Brown, who played 11 seasons in Detroit, eight of them blocking for Sanders. "Barry was always the quiet guy. I think a lot of times, the Lions took advantage of that. I never really remember the Lions going to Barry for any important decisions. With Ndamukong, I don't think 'outspoken' is the proper word, but he will say what's on his mind. I think the organization will respect that a lot of more than I think they respected Barry."

As bad as the Lions sometimes were with Sanders, those 9-7 and 8-8 seasons look like the glory years compared to what Suh inherited when he arrived in 2010 as the second overall pick in the draft (behind Sam Bradford). Detroit was just two years removed from being 0-16, the worst season in NFL history. In the 2000s, the Lions lost more than 10 games six straight years. In a league known for its parity, they somehow managed to be on a revolving, five-year rebuilding plan.

The team's litany of bad draft picks were embarrassing: Joey Harrington, Charles Rogers, Mike Williams

Losing is one thing. Total hopelessness is another.

A culture like that is almost impossible to change. And although Suh isn't the sole architect of the Lions' turnaround -- certainly general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz deserve credit also -- his demeanor, attitude and edginess have changed the way the Lions are perceived. Yes, some think Suh is a dirty player, as he's been fined a total of $42,000 for vicious hits on Jake Delhomme, Jay Cutler and Andy Dalton in his brief career so far. But Lions fans fiercely defend him; if other teams-- especially other teams' quarterbacks -- fear Suh the way Lawrence Taylor was once feared, it's worth it.

Teams respect what wide receiver Calvin Johnson -- who perhaps has more freakish talent than Suh does -- can do to them, but it isn't quite the same. And Stafford, when he's healthy, is the franchise quarterback Detroit has needed for what seems like forever.

But Suh is the soul of the franchise.

[+] EnlargeTBD
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezHow confident is he? Confident enough to predict a 16-0 season for the Lions.

"He sets the tempo for that team," Brown says. "That's where you're going to win it at. I've played on two Super Bowl teams, and in New York, we got beat by a great defense in the Ravens, and in Tampa, we had a great defense. If your defense is nasty like Suh is, it's contagious. Did you see Calvin after that touchdown catch against Dallas? I have never seen him spike the ball like that. It's just rubbing off."

Sanders was the last Detroit player whom other teams really feared. He had historic talent, but he was never the leader that Suh is, and he didn't embrace being the face of the franchise the way that Suh does. Sanders was so quiet that people sometimes barely knew when he was in the room. During those occasions when he was at odds with Lions management, his father -- rather than Barry himself -- was the one who publicly voiced his concerns.

Suh isn't a big talker; but in the offseason, he declared that the Lions would go 16-0.

That's about as non-Barry as it gets.

Sanders embraced Detroit, but he avoided the spotlight. Suh, on the other hand, is completely comfortable being an ambassador. You see him in Chrysler commercials. He hosted a wheelchair basketball game at Oakland University two weeks ago. This past weekend, thieves stole some football equipment from one of Detroit's all-boys high schools, the Frederick Douglass College Preparatory Academy for Young Men, which put Friday's homecoming game in jeopardy. Suh donated $8,000 to replace the stolen equipment.

I've seen a lot of bad Lions football as a native Detroiter. Now, for the first time in my life, Detroit fans are talking about their NFL team as though this current success is meant to last. You don't have to look much beyond No. 90 there on the defensive line to know why.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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