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Charlie Sanders' legacy rooted in consistency, loyalty to Lions

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We see it all the time these days, athletic tight ends running down the seam, making huge plays over the middle. Call it the modern tight end via the modern passing game.

Charlie Sanders, who passed away Thursday at age 68, was the modern tight end stuck in a passing era that was anything but. The pass-friendly rules we have in today's game were non-existent then. So if Sanders caught a ball down the middle of the field, you could bet he paid the price for it.

Still, the former Detroit Lions All-Pro tight end was one of the best at it. At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds in the late 1960s, he was the prototype for the Jimmy Grahams of the world we see now. Moreover, back in 1968, when Sanders entered the league out of Minnesota, 6-4 was a lot like 6-6 or so today. He could also move.

"Charlie was one of the early, fast tight ends who became critical to offensive success when defensive coverages double-teamed both wide receivers," wrote legendary coach Weeb Ewbank in the book "Football Greats."

Lem Barney, a fellow Hall of Famer and former Lions teammate, pointed out Sanders' overall ability.

"Just a tremendously great athlete," Barney told The Detroit Free Press' Dave Birkett. "He was always a believer that we could win. He always thought if he could get the quarterback to throw it to him, he was going to catch it. He made some acrobatic catches. I'm telling you, one-legged, one arm in the air, floating through the air almost like a Superman. If you threw it to him, he was going to find a way to catch it."

Sanders used his size advantage to catch 336 balls over his 10 seasons in Detroit (from 1968 to 1977), as well as to block in the run game. Make no mistake, the Lions were a ground-and-pound team -- as was the rest of the league during most of that era -- so Sanders' primary gig was to set the edge, not sprint past it.

.Take a look at the life and career of Charlie Sanders through the years.

Still, even at a time when the pecking order of glamour positions in the NFL read RB, QB, WR, DE, LB and then maybe TE, Sanders garnered enough respect to earn three first-team All-Pro honors while making the Pro Bowl seven times.

The reason he received those accolades was simple. During his 10 seasons, no tight end in pro football caught more passes for more yards. His status does not depend on cherry-picked stats, either; Sanders is in the top five in receptions among tight ends from 1960 to 1979. And though some of his contemporaries had monster seasons, Sanders might have been the most consistent. It's how a kid from North Carolina ended up with a bust in Canton, Ohio.

Despite all of the accomplishments, few fans know of him today. One reason is because the Lions only made the playoffs once in his career -- a game they lost, 5-0 -- and were always bested by Bud Grant's Vikings in the old NFC Central.

The beauty of Sanders' success in the NFL, though, is that it extends beyond just the playing field, as he worked as a color analyst, then an assistant coach, before finally becoming the assistant director of pro personnel -- all with the Lions. In fact, he was the team's wide receivers coach when Herman Moore and Brett Perriman set an NFL record for most catches by a wide receiver tandem (231).

Clearly the man knew something about receiving, as well as giving your professional life to an organization. When I spoke with him at the Hall of Fame Fan Fest in Cleveland last year, we of course discussed his on-field accomplishments, but, with the frankness of a man from his era, he also made sure to mention that he had done so many other things with the Lions than simply catch passes.

Talk about an appropriate message for players today. You can give back to the game and earn a living at the same time; your "glory" years don't have to be limited to the ones in which you donned a uniform and helmet.

With all the padded stats put up by today's tight ends, the guys of the '70s are often misrepresented and forgotten. Their era was not conducive to soft coverage on the field, and it did not include 24-hour media coverage off of it. But if I were to give a nod to both yesterday and today, then consider Sanders to have had Greg Olsen's speed and consistency, mixed with Graham's athleticism and ability to create plays.

In five decades with the Detroit Lions, Sanders created for himself a nice football life.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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