Top 25 Running Backs in NFL History
Is the featured running back a dying breed in the NFL?
Many feel it is, and it's difficult to discredit this sentiment entirely. In fact, before 2013, never was there a draft without a running back being selected in the first round, but they've now been skipped over in consecutive years.
Perhaps the past two drafts have been weak with talent at the position, but it's impossible to ignore this as an indicator of the direction that the league is moving in—and that is toward fast-paced, pass-heavy offensive scheming.
But whether or not the existence of the featured back fades into history, it will remain important to reflect on the many dominant running backs who have passed through the league over the years—and there have been many—so many that it seems almost impossible to compile a list of 25 names without leaving off several of the all-time greats.
To justify these inevitable cases, I'll stress the significance to these rankings of each player's performance at the peak of his career, his primary career accolades relative to his peers and his overall contribution to their team, all with respect to the time period when he played.
Before reading on, note that this list will only include modern era players due to a lack of statistical evidence for backs whose main production came prior to 1950.
And as always, feel free to leave feedback in the comment section below!
25. Tiki Barber (1997-2006)
Team(s): New York Giants (10 seasons)
Accolades: One-time first-team All-Pro, three-time Pro Bowler
Key Stats: 10,449 rushing yards (24th), 55 rushing touchdowns (55th), 4.7 yards per carry, 5,183 receiving yards
Barber proved invaluable throughout his tenure with the Giants, which encompassed his entire professional career.
He was a great athlete, and with soft hands, he was dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield. Once he earned a starting job in 2000, his well-balanced skill set assured him a starting job until he couldn't play in the league any longer.
From 2000 onward, Barber gained more than 1,900 all-purpose yards and eight touchdowns per season with a 4.8 yards-per-carry average.
Historically, he is often overlooked, but for his consistency and progression as a player until his final years in the league, he has my vote for the Hall of Fame.
24. John Riggins (1971-1985)
Team(s): New York Jets (five seasons), Washington Redskins (nine seasons)
Accolades: One-time first-team All-Pro, one-time Pro Bowler, 1982 Super Bowl MVP
Key Stats: 11,352 rushing yards (16th), 104 rushing touchdowns (sixth), 3.9 yards per carry, 2,090 receiving yards
Riggins was the prototypical ground-it-out running back during his 14-year career. He was never among the most explosive players at his position, but he was a workhorse for the Redskins, specifically toward the end of his career, and they rode him all the way to a Super Bowl victory in 1982.
Although he was only selected to one Pro Bowl, he is remembered for defying age and rushing for a then-record 24 touchdowns in 1983, his 12th professional season. He followed it up with another impressive 14-touchdown season in 1984 at the age of 35.
Drawbacks to his resume are his low yards-per-carry average and lack of contributions as a receiver. However, his high historical rankings in total yardage and touchdowns earn him a spot on this list.
23. Curtis Martin (1995-2005)
Team(s): New England Patriots (three seasons), New York Jets (eight seasons)
Accolades: One-time first-team All-Pro, five-time Pro Bowler
Key Stats: 14,101 rushing yards (fourth), 90 rushing touchdowns (12th), 4.0 yards per carry, 3,329 receiving yards
Curtis Martin was as steady of a producer as the position has ever seen. In just one season—his final one at the age of 32—did he fail to produce 1,000 yards after accomplishing the feat in his first 10 professional seasons—three times in New England and seven times in New York.
It wasn't until his 10th season that he truly solidified his place in the Hall of Fame. His 1,697 rushing yards led the league and marked a career high. He added 14 total touchdowns to bring his career total within five of the century mark.
Martin will always be known for his reliability and the way in which he took care of the football, fumbling just 29 times on more than 4,000 career touches. He could also be counted on to take the field, missing just four games in the first 10 NFL seasons.
22. Jim Taylor (1958-1967)
Team(s): Green Bay Packers (nine seasons), New Orleans Saints (one season)
Accolades: One-time first-team All-Pro, five-time Pro Bowler, 1962 NFL MVP
Key Stats: 8,597 rushing yards (36th), 83 rushing touchdowns (16th), 4.4 yards per carry, 1,756 receiving yards
Similar to Riggins, Taylor was a prototype power runner, but unlike Riggins, his success came early in his career. In the five-year stretch from his third to seventh NFL season, Taylor averaged 1,214 yards and 14 touchdowns per season on 4.9 yards per carry.
He is best known for his exemplary performance in a hard-nosed 1962 NFL title game between his Packers and the New York Giants, who had one of the league's most stout defenses. He carried the ball 33 times and scored his team's only touchdown in the 16-7 victory.
For a power running back, Taylor's rushing efficiency is surprisingly high, and winning the MVP in 1962 has him in rare company among running backs.
21. Tony Dorsett (1977-1988)
Team(s): Dallas Cowboys (11 seasons), Denver Broncos (one season)
Accolades: One-time first-team All-Pro, four-time Pro Bowler
Key Stats: 12,739 rushing yards (eighth), 77 rushing touchdowns (21st), 4.3 yards per carry, 3,554 receiving yards
Dorsett was as close to a sure thing as any running back drafted in the modern era. At Pittsburgh, he was a four-time All-American and won the Heisman Trophy his senior season.
And he wasted no time carrying over that production to the NFL. In his first nine seasons with the Cowboys, he gained 1,204 yards and eight touchdowns per season while averaging 4.4 yards per carry. He did, however, struggle with fumbles, averaging eight per season over that same stretch.
Ultimately, he was an incredibly talented and well-rounded football player whose career included an impressive five NFC Championship Game visits and two Super Bowl trips.
20. Larry Csonka (1968-1979)
Team(s): Miami Dolphins (nine seasons), New York Giants (three seasons)
Accolades: Two-time first-team All-Pro, five-time Pro Bowler, 1973 Super Bowl MVP
Key Stats: 8,081 rushing yards (43rd), 64 rushing touchdowns (40th), 4.3 yards per carry, 820 receiving yards
Standing at 6'3", 235 pounds, Csonka was not the easiest back on this list to bring down, especially when he had a head full of steam. The fullback played a huge role in a ball control offense of a Dolphins team that was dominant in the early '70s.
Because he was a true fullback, his statistics never soared as high as most of the running backs on this list, but his production was consistent as a runner, and he contributed as a powerful blocker as well.
In a stretch from 1970 to 1973, he averaged more than 1,000 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns per season with a 4.9 yards-per-carry average—not small feats for a fullback. His 1973 Super Bowl MVP also has him in rare territory at his position.
19. Edgerrin James (1999-2009)
Team(s): Indianapolis Colts (seven seasons), Arizona Cardinals (three seasons), Seattle Seahawks (one season)
Accolades: One-time first-team All-Pro, four-time Pro Bowler
Key Stats: 12,246 rushing yards (11th), 80 rushing touchdowns (19th), 4.0 yards per carry, 3,364 receiving yards
Edgerrin "Edge" James was one of the most fun running backs to watch during the late '90s and throughout the 2000s. Despite his 6'0" height, he played with a low center of gravity that made him a handful to tackle.
He was never among the most explosive backs in the league, but he made the most of his carries and avoided negative plays. In his first two seasons in the league, he took on the task of replacing Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk and excelled in a high-pressure situation, running for more than 1,500 yards and 13 touchdowns in both seasons.
If not for consistent injury troubles, James' career stats would likely rank among the top 10 in NFL history.
18. Jerome Bettis (1993-2005)
Team(s): Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams (three seasons), Pittsburgh Steelers (10 seasons)
Accolades: Two-time first-team All-Pro, six-time Pro Bowler
Key Stats: 13,662 rushing yards (sixth), 91 rushing touchdowns (10th), 3.9 yards per carry, 1,449 receiving yards
With a playing weight of more than 250 pounds, Jerome "The Bus" Bettis was one of the most successful power running backs in league history.
Few would believe that such a large back could be so nimble, but he was not one to allow his weight to restrict him. His 13-year career included a stretch of six consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. If injuries and a weakening offensive line had not limited his production in the early 2000s, he could have extended that streak.
17. Franco Harris (1972-1984)
Team(s): Pittsburgh Steelers (12 seasons), Seattle Seahawks (one season)
Accolades: One-time first-team All-Pro, nine-time Pro Bowler, 1974 Super Bowl MVP
Key Stats: 12,120 rushing yards (13th), 91 rushing touchdowns (10th), 4.1 yards per carry, 2,287 receiving yards
Harris is most famous for the "Immaculate Reception" when he caught a pass to give the Steelers their first playoff win ever—a 13-7 victory over the Raiders—but his legacy stretches far beyond that play.
He was a consistent facet in the Steelers offense for more than a decade and surpassed 1,000 rushing yards eight times for the team. Perhaps the more impressive aspect of his legacy was his ability to elevate his performance during the playoffs. He led the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl IX, winning MVP honors after rushing for 158 yards.
16. Shaun Alexander (2000-2008)
Team(s): Seattle Seahawks (eight seasons), Washington Redskins (one season)
Accolades: One-time first-team All-Pro, three-time Pro Bowler, 2005 NFL MVP, 2005 Offensive Player of the Year
Key Stats: 9,453 rushing yards (32nd), 100 rushing touchdowns (seventh), 4.3 yards per carry, 1,520 receiving yards
After a modest rookie season, Alexander's production steadily improved with experience, eventually culminating with one of the greatest seasons ever by a running back.
In 2005 he rushed for a then-record 27 touchdowns, and his 1,880 yards were good enough to lead the league. He was awarded with league MVP honors and led his team to a Super Bowl appearance later that season.
He is often underrated, but his five-year stretch from 2001 to 2005—1,501 yards and 19 touchdowns per season—is one of the most impressive ever by a running back.
15. Priest Holmes (1997-2007)
Team(s): Baltimore Ravens (four seasons), Kansas City Chiefs (six seasons)
Accolades: Three-time first-team All-Pro, three-time Pro Bowler, 2002 NFL Offensive Player of the Year
Key Stats: 8,172 rushing yards (42nd), 86 rushing touchdowns (14th), 4.6 yards per carry, 2,962 receiving yards
When Holmes was on, boy was he on. For a four-year stretch with the Chiefs from 2001 to 2004, he averaged 101.5 yards per game, and despite missing half of the 2004 season, he gained more than 1,900 all-purpose yards and 20 total touchdowns per season over that stretch.
Holmes' back-to-back 20-touchdowns seasons in 2002 and 2003 (24 and 27 touchdowns, respectively) have him among limited company among NFL running backs. His ability to contribute as a receiver also has him in high standing in my eyes.
If he were only able to string together a few more healthy seasons, there's no doubt in my mind that he would have ranked among the top three backs ever in career rushing touchdowns.
14. Thurman Thomas (1988-2000)
Team(s): Buffalo Bills (12 seasons), Miami Dolphins (one season)
Accolades: Two-time first-team All-Pro, five-time Pro Bowler, 1991 NFL MVP, 1991 NFL Offensive Player of the Year
Key Stats: 12,074 rushing yards (14th), 65 rushing touchdowns (37th), 4.2 yards per carry, 4,458 receiving yards
Coming out of Oklahoma State just before fellow Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders, Thomas rapidly became a mainstay among the top players at the position for a decade.
He was one of the few backs at the time who were productive receivers as well as featured runners. He rushed for 1,000 yards in eight consecutive seasons with Buffalo and over the same stretch averaged 47 receptions and 458 receiving yards per season.
He was never as explosive as Sanders, to whom he'll always draw an unfair comparison, but he was one of the most well-balanced backs of his era. With an NFL MVP award to boot, he has plenty to be proud about when looking back at his career.
13. Marcus Allen (1982-1997)
Team(s): Oakland Raiders (11 seasons), Kansas City Chiefs (five seasons)
Accolades: Two-time first-team All-Pro, six-time Pro Bowler, 1983 Super Bowl MVP, 1985 NFL MVP, 1985 NFL Offensive Player of the Year
Key Stats: 12,243 rushing yards (12th), 123 rushing touchdowns (third), 4.1 yards per carry, 5,411 receiving yards
When his career ended after the 1997 season, Allen was the all-time rushing touchdown leader in NFL history. Despite Al Davis putting the talented running back in the doghouse during his prime years, he was still able to post some gaudy numbers on his career.
Not only did he lead to the Raiders to a Super Bowl XVIII victory over the Redskins, rushing for 191 yards and two touchdowns, but he also proved to be one of the most consistent regular-season performers of all time. He became the first player ever to surpass 10,000 rushing yards and 5,000 receiving yards.
12. Terrell Davis (1995-2001)
Team(s): Denver Broncos (seven seasons)
Accolades: Three-time first-team All-Pro, three-time Pro Bowler, 1996 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, 1997 Super Bowl MVP, 1998 NFL MVP, 1998 NFL Offensive Player of the Year
Key Stats: 7,607 rushing yards (51st), 60 rushing touchdowns (45th), 4.6 yards per carry, 1,280 receiving yards
Although Davis' career was not long, lasting only 78 games before eventually coming to a halt, his production from 1996 to 1998 marks one of the most prolific stretches of play in the history of the position.
During those three years, he was not only named first-team All-Pro each season, but he also accrued Offensive Player of the Year honors twice and league MVP honors once. He did this after consecutive seasons with more than 2,000 all-purpose yards and 15 touchdowns.
Davis, known also as simply "T.D.," remains absent from the Hall of Fame due to an abbreviated career, but when you talk about the most electric backs in NFL history, his name is bound to come up.
11. Gale Sayers (1965-1971)
Team(s): Chicago Bears (seven seasons)
Accolades: Five-time first-team All-Pro, four-time Pro Bowler
Key Stats: 4,956 rushing yards (132nd), 39 rushing touchdowns (113th), 5.0 yards per carry, 1,307 receiving yards
Sayers had a short stay in the NFL, competing in his 68 games before ending his football career at the age of 28, but when he was on the field, he was a joy to watch.
No matter rain or shine, he always seemed to show up with an edge. He was not only one of the best athletes on the field, but his ability to watch his blocks develop in front of him was touted across the league.
Despite his short career, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977 and remains not only one of the most impressive running backs ever but one of the best kick returners, with eight touchdowns on just 118 returns.
10. Emmitt Smith (1990-2004)
Team(s): Dallas Cowboys (13 seasons), Arizona Cardinals (two seasons)
Accolades: Four-time first-team All-Pro, eight-time Pro Bowler, 1993 Super Bowl MVP, 1993 NFL MVP
Key Stats: 18,355 rushing yards (first), 164 rushing touchdowns (first), 4.2 yards per carry, 3,224 receiving yards
Many readers will contest that this is too low for the league's all-time leading rusher and scorer on the ground, but I cite his low rushing average, elite offensive line and limited contributions as a receiver as main deterrents in the argument for Smith as a top-five all-time running back.
His 11 straight 1,000-yard seasons are an all-time best, and you won't hear any argument from me against his consistency and impressive longevity. However, he never dominated the game as the backs ahead of him on this list did.
Regardless, he was a prime-time performer and a key piece to three Cowboys Super Bowl teams. For those who value contributors to successful teams, he should be high on your list of all-time greats.
9. LaDainian Tomlinson (2001-2011)
Team(s): San Diego Chargers (nine seasons), New York Jets (two seasons)
Accolades: Three-time first-team All-Pro, five-time Pro Bowler, 2006 NFL MVP, 2006 NFL Offensive Player of the Year
Key Stats: 13,684 rushing yards (fifth), 145 rushing touchdowns (second), 4.3 yards per carry, 4,722 receiving yards
When production from Shaun Alexander and Priest Holmes began to fall off, Tomlinson was the running back who stepped into the limelight in the mid-2000s. He smashed Alexander's still-fresh scoring record with 31 scores and 2,323 all-purpose yards in 2006.
Tomlinson holds a special place in many fantasy footballers' hearts for his streak of nine straight double-digit-touchdown seasons from 2001 to 2009. Before the Chargers offensive line began to fall apart in the late 2000s, his rushing average was among the highest of his time.
His two-year stint with the Jets seemed to taint his reputation a bit, but as time goes on, appreciation for his contributions to the game will only grow.
8. Earl Campbell (1978-1985)
Team(s): Houston Oilers (seven seasons), New Orleans Saints (two seasons)
Accolades: Three-time first-team All-Pro, five-time Pro Bowler, 1978 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, 1979 NFL MVP, 1979 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, 1980 NFL Offensive Player of the Year
Key Stats: 9,407 rushing yards (12th), 74 rushing touchdowns (24th), 4.3 yards per carry, 5,411 receiving yards
Few running backs have ever burst onto the scene like Earl Campbell. His stat line over his first three seasons in the league was...well...crazy: 5,081 rushing yards and 45 touchdowns on 4.9 yards per carry. He led the league in rushing in each of those seasons and was first in scoring in two of the three.
With his Herculean thighs and long speed to match, you had to feel sorry for defensive players who got in his way. He looked like a man among boys, and it's hard to believe that his body lasted for as long as it did with the beating he put it through each Sunday.
Sadly, he was never able to reach the Super Bowl, and his performances in the 1978 and 1979 AFC Championship Games were forgettable, but with one of the most unique running styles ever, he is one of my favorite backs ever to play the game.
7. Marshall Faulk (1994-2005)
Team(s): Indianapolis Colts (five seasons), St. Louis Rams (seven seasons)
Accolades: Three-time first-team All-Pro, seven-time Pro Bowler, 2000 NFL MVP, 2000 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, 2001 NFL Offensive Player of the Year
Key Stats: 12,279 rushing yards (10th), 100 rushing touchdowns (seventh), 4.3 yards per carry, 6,875 receiving yards
Many fans forget that Faulk's career began in Indianapolis, and perhaps that's for the best. It wasn't until he joined the "Greatest Show on Turf" that his production spiked toward Hall of Fame levels.
In his first three seasons with St. Louis, he accrued 4,122 rushing yards, 2,643 receiving yards and 59 total touchdowns with an out-of-this-world 5.4 yards-per-carry average. His 84 receptions per season over this stretch also set a benchmark for scatbacks to be measured by in the future.
Faulk was not one to shy from the big stage either; his 159-yard, two-touchdown performance in the 2001 NFC Championship Game was key to a Rams victory over the Eagles. He also cemented his status as one of the best out-of-the-backfield receivers ever when he caught five passes for 90 yards in the Super Bowl XXXIV victory over Tennessee.
6. O.J. Simpson (1969-1979)
Team(s): Buffalo Bills (nine seasons), San Francisco 49ers (two seasons)
Accolades: Five-time first-team All-Pro, six-time Pro Bowler, 1973 NFL MVP, 1973 Offensive Player of the Year
Key Stats: 11,236 rushing yards (18th), 61 rushing touchdowns (43rd), 4.7 yards per carry, 2,142 receiving yards
Do people even remember that O.J. Simpson was one of the best running backs ever? No player has tarnished his reputation more in his post-NFL life, but one cannot deny his prowess on the football field.
His record 143.1 rushing yards per game during the 1973 season still has me in awe; it's potentially the most unbreakable record in football.
His 6.0 yards per carry that season and 4.7 average for his career are huge factors in his high presence on this list. Few running backs were more dominant in their prime than Simpson. In a five-year stretch from 1972 to 1976, he ran for 7,699 yards and 54 touchdowns, leading the league in rushing in four out of the five seasons.
5. Eric Dickerson (1983-1993)
Team(s): St. Louis Rams (five seasons), Indianapolis Colts (five seasons), Los Angeles Raiders (one season), Atlanta Falcons (one season)
Accolades: Five-time first-team All-Pro, six-time Pro Bowler, 1986 NFL Offensive Player of the Year
Key Stats: 13,259 rushing yards (seventh), 90 rushing touchdowns (12th), 4.4 yards per carry, 2,137 receiving yards
Similar to Earl Campbell, Dickerson wasted no time in making his case for the Hall of Fame. In his first seven seasons in the league, he surpassed 1,000 rushing yards each time on his way to 11,226 total rushing yards and 82 rushing touchdowns over that stretch.
Injuries steadily took their toll on Dickerson, whose production fell rapidly after the 1989 season, his second with the Colts.
His 2,105-yard season in 1984 remains the top single-season rushing performance by any player in NFL history, although Adrian Peterson knocked on the window with 2,097 yards in 2012.
4. Walter Payton (1975-1987)
Team(s): Chicago Bears (13 seasons)
Accolades: Five-time first-team All-Pro, nine-time Pro Bowler, 1977 NFL MVP, 1977 NFL Offensive Player of the Year
Key Stats: 16,726 rushing yards (second), 110 rushing touchdowns (fourth), 4.4 yards per carry, 4,538 receiving yards
There is perhaps no more appropriate nickname among the players on this list than that of Walter "Sweetness" Payton; the NFL renamed its Man of the Year Award after the running back due to his humanitarian efforts throughout his life.
Payton was just as sweet on the field and appeared to glide past defenders on his way to setting the record for career rushing yards at 16,726 (which was broken by Emmitt Smith).
The Bears running back is one of few on this list to remain on one team throughout his career, and he did so in spectacular fashion, with little production drop-off as he aged.
He was also incredibly durable, playing in 186 consecutive games at one point in his career.
3. Adrian Peterson (2007-Present)
Team(s): Minnesota Vikings (seven seasons)
Accolades: Three-time first-team All-Pro, six-time Pro Bowler, 2012 NFL MVP, 2012 NFL Offensive Player of the Year
Key Stats: 10,115 rushing yards (27th), 86 rushing touchdowns (14th), 5.0 yards per carry, 1,697 receiving yards
Some will see this as too high of a ranking for a player in the middle of his career, but Peterson has already proved to be one of the elite running backs ever to play the game.
His combination of physicality, second-level burst and Houdini-esque ability to escape from the grips of defenders makes him entertaining to watch, and his elite production—98.2 yards per game over his career—has come in the age of the quarterback, which makes his numbers even more impressive.
Consider also that he hasn't had a stellar group of linemen in front of him and has battled back from several injuries, including a torn ACL prior to his 2,097-yard season.
If Peterson can remain healthy, he'll be on pace to finish among the top scorers and rushers in league history.
2. Jim Brown (1957-1965)
Team(s): Cleveland Browns (nine seasons)
Accolades: Eight-time first-team All-Pro, nine-time Pro Bowler, 1957 NFL MVP, 1958 NFL MVP, 1965 NFL MVP
Key Stats: 12,312 rushing yards (ninth), 106 rushing touchdowns (fifth), 5.2 yards per carry, 1,697 receiving yards
Brown is only ranked second because it seemed too much of a cop-out to have a tie at No. 1, and it's difficult to compare production from half-a-century ago to more modern legends.
However, this is no slight to Brown, whom I have in a tier above the running backs ranked below him. He reached the Pro Bowl in every one of his NFL seasons and was named first-team All-Pro eight times. Simply put, he was the most dominant player of his era.
His 5.2 yards-per-carry average and 104.3 yards-per-game average are evidence of his superiority. He ranks among the best players in league history.
1. Barry Sanders (1989-1998)
Team(s): Detroit Lions (10 seasons)
Accolades: Six-time first-team All-Pro, 10-time Pro Bowler, 1994 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, 1997 NFL MVP, 1997 NFL Offensive Player of the Year
Key Stats: 15,269 rushing yards (third), 99 rushing touchdowns (fifth), 5.0 yards per carry, 2,921 receiving yards
Sanders is not only the most entertaining running back ever to play but also the most productive and conducive to his team's success.
Without Sanders, the '90s would have been a long decade for the Lions. He managed to carry the offense on his shoulders without much talent on the offensive line or weapons to distract defenses from the running game.
Despite their focus on containing him, defenses never truly figured out how to do it. With eyes in the back of his head and unbelievable lateral agility, he was always a handful to game-plan against, and the numbers tell the same story.
Sanders surpassed 1,000 yards on the ground and was voted to the Pro Bowl in every season he played in the NFL before calling it quits due to lack of passion to continue. If he had stayed in pads, there's no telling how high his yardage total could have climbed.
All statistics and awards history courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.