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Barry Sanders likes what he sees from Lions rookie D'Andre Swift

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Sanders modeled his game off of Dorsett (0:59)

Former Oklahoma State running back Barry Sanders recalls how watching Tony Dorsett helped shape his game. (0:59)

Former Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders was surprised at first. Maybe by the reality of time passing or the actuality the Lions’ newest running back, D'Andre Swift, was born after the Hall of Famer had played his last game in Detroit.

But the fact that Swift -- a running back coming multiple NFL generations later -- said Sanders' game had resonated with him was a mark of recognition for the Lions legend. It also made him think back to his own introduction into the league in 1989 and the backs he barely saw but looked up to.

“I think back to the way I thought about Gale Sayers,” Sanders told ESPN. “I never saw Gale Sayers play, but I saw plenty of his footage and heard his name a ton. I never saw Jim Brown play, but obviously that’s all you hear about is Jim Brown, you know, and there’s plenty of footage out there.

“It’s kind of neat to be in a situation that we would pick someone that I had already retired when he came along, I think that’s a great compliment.”

It’s also the acknowledgment that time has passed and it’s been over 20 years since Sanders last played for the Lions. Sanders was the first person who came to mind for Swift when he found out he was picked by Detroit last month.

Swift called Sanders his “favorite back of all time.” And at the time of his selection, Sanders, Matthew Stafford and some other players was about all he knew. He didn’t know much about the franchise’s history either.

But he was able to take things from Sanders’ game and incorporate them into his own.

“Everyone would always talk about him,” Swift said. “I started watching film and highlights and just looking at his stats. It’s kind of unbelievable. As I got older, I tried to emulate my game to be like his in any way possible. I just love watching him.”

When Swift was born on Jan. 14, 1999, Sanders had played his final game a little less than three weeks earlier, a 19-10 loss to Baltimore where he gained 41 yards on 19 carries to finish up a 1,491-yard season.

But the power of highlights and the internet made it possible for Swift to study Sanders. And Sanders has watched a bit of Swift too. He’s come away impressed.

“He’s a big-play kid, you know, and it’ll be interesting just to see how much he is able to come into the system that he is in with the Lions and have an impact,” Sanders said. “We’ve got some pretty good running backs already. Will he come in and distinguish himself as the guy?

“I don’t know what their thinking is as far as that, but just as far as the talent, he’s right up there with the kid from Wisconsin, Jonathan Taylor. He’s slippery. He’s made a lot of big runs. He breaks tackles well and has good speed.”

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D'Andre Swift's NFL draft profile

D'Andre Swift was a feature back in a crowded backfield at Georgia.

Swift did it over and over again in college, gaining 2,885 career rushing yards with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and 17 career rushing touchdowns. So he proved himself in college. The pros? It remains to be seen as Swift tries to become Detroit’s first 1,000-yard back since Reggie Bush in 2013.

“Can you bring that same kind of success to the NFL is always the question,” Sanders said. “He’s one of the top running backs in college this year and the kid knows how to get yards.

“So it’ll be, ‘Hey look, will that translate and can that transfer to this level?’ So I’m hopeful.”