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Ranking the 25 Greatest Running Backs in NFL History
The role of the running back has changed over the years. As more and more teams split carries between two and three guys, fewer and fewer backs are able to reach the status as a transcendent player. It hasn’t always been that way, though. The NFL’s history is filled with great running backs that were not only the best at their position, but among the best players in the league. Here are the 25 greatest running backs the NFL has had to offer.
25. Corey Dillon: Unfortunately, most of his career was spent toiling in the abyss that was Cincinnati Bengals football in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He started his career with six 1000-yard seasons, and added another one once he went to New England. He’s 20th in career rushing yards, and 17th in career rushing TDs. He is one of the great underappreciated players of his era, garnering little attention in Cincinnati.
24. Steven Jackson: Like Dillon, he spent a majority of his career playing for teams that weren’t in contention, and he was the star. He ran for over 1000 yards in 8 consecutive seasons from 2005-2012, running over, through, and sometimes around, anybody in his path. The 3-time Pro Bowler is 18th in all-time rushing yards, and is the true definition of a work-horse running back.
23. Jerome Bettis: He’s a six-time Pro Bowler and two-time All Pro with 13, 662 yards, good for sixth in NFL history. He’s also 11th in rushing touchdowns. His 3.9 career yards per carry isn’t all that impressive, but his ability to find the endzone, especially as his career wound down, was as impressive as anybody to ever play. He did have eight 1000-yard seasons, and he’s one of the more beloved players in recent league history.
22. Frank Gore: There’s only a few hundred yards separating him from having ten seasons with 1000 yards rushing. He still has eight of them, and over 12,000 yards for his career. He’s not big, or blazing fast, but his uncanny ability to find the smallest holes, and then push the pile for extra yards, has made him one of the most consistently good backs in recent memory. He’s also a five-time Pro Bowler.
21. Edgerrin James: In a career shortened by injury and then personal tragedy, he still carved out a career that might earn him a Hall of Fame induction eventually. He began his career by leading the league in rushing in both of his first two seasons. He’s 11th in rushing, and 19th in rushing touchdowns. The former Rookie of the Year was also a member of the 2000s all-decade team.
20. Marshawn Lynch: An interesting case, he didn’t rush for 10,000 yards, he retired at age 29, and he’s not in the top 20 in any major statistical category. However, he was arguably the most dominant running back in the league for a four-year period from 2011-2015. In that span, he averaged 1339 yards and 12 touchdowns per season. He also made some of the greatest runs in playoffs history.
19. Ricky Watters: A dual-threat player, he is not only in the top 25 in career rushing yards with 10,643, but he’s also top 25 in yards from scrimmage. He’s underrated as a running back, having rushed for over 1000 yards in seven seasons. He made five straight Pro Bowls to start his career, and nearly 1250 yards and nine touchdowns, with 53 catches for 448 yards as a receiver.
18. Curtis Martin: Like Bettis, he wasn’t a big yards per carry guy, averaging 4.0 for his career. What he did do, though, was start his career with ten consecutive 1000 yard seasons, and totaled over 14,000 for his career, which puts him fourth all-time. The five-time Pro Bowler is also inside the top 15 in rushing touchdowns and yards per game. He capped off a great career with an induction into the Hall of Fame.
17. Franco Harris: Perhaps best known by many for “The Immaculate Reception”, he carved out a Hall of Fame career in Pittsburgh, helping win four Super Bowls in the process. He was a nine-time Pro Bowler, was Rookie of the Year, and a member of the 1970s all-decade team. His 12,120 yards is 13th in NFL history and he also has the most in team history. He’s also 11th in all-time rushing touchdowns.
16. Marcus Allen: He did it all in his time in the league. He only led the league in rushing once, in his 1985 MVP season, but he was a scoring machine, and his 145 touchdowns still ranks sixth in history. He was also a terrific receiver and a great goal-line back. The Hall of Famer is 12th in career rushing yards, and seventh in yards from scrimmage. He made it to six Pro Bowls and was first-team All Pro twice.
15. Chris Johnson: One of the most exciting players in league history, he was always just a breath away from breaking a long play. He was Offensive Player of the Year in 2009 when he rushed for over 2000 yards and scored 16 total touchdowns. He’s at just under 10,000 yards rushing for his career, and counting. He has a ridiculous six scores of more than 80 yards, which is the most all-time.
14. Terrell Davis: Despite just four real seasons in the NFL, he was one of the most dominant players at his position to ever play. From 1995-1998, he averaged 1603 yards and 14 touchdowns. In 1998, he rushed for over 2000 yards and had 21 scores. It could be fairly argued that John Elway would never have gotten his Super Bowl rings if it weren’t for Davis. He might have been an all-time great if it weren’t for injuries.
13. Thurman Thomas: A five-time Pro Bowler and three-time first team All Pro, he accumulated 16,532 total yards, which is ninth all-time. He was also key in getting the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls. He was NFL MVP in 1991 when he ran for 1407 yards at a 4.9 yards per carry clip. He was also a very good receiver through his career, with almost 4500 yards. He was voted to the 1990s all-decade team.
12. Tony Dorsett: The Hall of Famer was a constant home run threat who rushed for 12,739 yards, a lot of which came in large chunks. He surpassed 1000 yards as a rookie, earning Rookie of the Year in the process, then went on to do it seven more times. He made it to four Pro Bowls and was All Pro three times. Known for his speed, as much as his ability, legend says that he ran a 4.3 40 yard dash at the age of 34.
11. Gale Sayers: “The Kansas Comet” had his career cut short by knee injuries, but he proved his greatness in the time he was on the field. In his rookie season, he averaged 5.2 yards per carry, and scored 14 rushing touchdowns, six receiving touchdowns, and two more as a return man. He led the league twice in rushing and his 5.0 yards per carry average for his career is seventh best all-time. He’s a Hall of Famer 1960s all decade team member.
10. Earl Campbell: Few have started their career better than he did. He led the league in rushing in his first three seasons, and in touchdowns in two of those years. Over that stretch, he averaged an amazing 1694 yards and 15 touchdowns. He was a bruising runner, which may have taken its toll, as he broke down early and retired at age 30. He was a five-time Pro Bowler and is enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
9. Emmitt Smith: There aren’t many running backs with a nicer list of accomplishments than the all-time leading rusher in NFL history. He broke 1000 yards 11 times, led the league in rushing four times, and led the league in touchdowns three times. He was an eight-time Pro Bowler, four-time first-team All Pro, two-time MVP, is on the 1990s all decade team, and is in the Hall of Fame. He also has more rushing touchdowns than anybody in history.
8. Marshall Faulk: Possibly the greatest combination of running and receiving ability in NFL history. He rushed for over 12,000 yards, putting him 10th all-time, and in seventh in rushing touchdowns with an even 100. That’s enough to get him on this list, but he also had at least 80 catches in five seasons and had almost 7000 yards receiving. The Hall of Famer is fourth all-time in yards from scrimmage, and is seventh in total touchdowns.
7. OJ Simpson: After a slow start due to coaching, “The Juice” showed what he could do. He led the league in rushing in four of five seasons from 1972-1976, and during that time averaged 1540 yards, including over 2000 in 1973, and nine touchdowns. He was the first player to break 2000 yards rushing, and the only one to do it when seasons were 14 games. He averaged over 140 yards per game that year, which is the most ever, by a whopping 10 yards per game.
6. Adrian Peterson: Despite having a season shortened by injury, and another lost to suspension, he has amassed a Hall of Fame resume by age 31. He’s already 17th in career rushing yards, and 10th in rushing touchdowns. He also doesn’t seem to be slowing down. He’s averaging over 97 yards per game for his career, which is fourth best ever, and his 4.9 yards per carry is 10th all-time. He had over 2000 yards rushing in his MVP 2012 season.
5. Eric Dickerson: The six-time Pro Bowler led the league in rushing four times, including his 1984 season where he set the all-time record with 2105 yards. His career total of 13,259 is the seventh most ever, and he’s also top five in career rushing yards per game and top 15 in rushing touchdowns. The Hall of Famer was first-team All Pro five times, and he was voted to the 1980s all decade team.
4. LaDainian Tomlinson: There are fair arguments to made that he should be even higher on this list. He’s five-time Pro Bowler and 2006 league MVP. He’s also a member of the 2000s all decade team and sure-fire Hall of Famer. He’s the NFL record holder for touchdowns in a season with 31, and his 145 rushing scores is 2nd all-time. He’s fifth in career rushing yards, third in total touchdowns, fifth in yards from scrimmage, and seventh in all-purpose yards.
3. Jim Brown: How good was Jim Brown? He doesn’t even qualify for this list since he didn’t play in the Super Bowl era, but it would be a crime to leave him off. He led the league in rushing in eight of his nine seasons. He’s also ninth in career rushing yards despite playing in just nine years. He’s also fifth in rushing touchdowns. This is pretty incredible, but considering the seasons were just 12 games long, it makes it mind-blowing.
2. Walter Payton: Aside from having one of the best nicknames ever, “Sweetness” was one of football’s best players. He rushed for over 1000 yards ten times and totaled 16,726 total yards rushing, which is second all-time. His 110 rushing touchdowns is fourth best. His Hall of Fame career saw him elected to nine Pro Bowls, seven All Pro teams, 1970s and 1980s all decade teams, and he was a two-time league MVP.
1. Barry Sanders: Some will say he took too many losses, but that makes the numbers he put up even more fantastic. The most exciting runner in NFL history played for 10 seasons and he broke 1000 yards rushing in every one of them. His “worst” was 1115. His yardage total is third all-time, and his rushing touchdown total is seventh. The ten-time Pro Bowler also has the seventh highest yards per carry ever. The Hall of Fame back might take a loss from time to time, but he was just as likely to make defenders look stupid as he broke a long run.