Honorable Mention:Earl Campbell, Marcus Allen, Jerome Bettis, Franco Harris, Terrell Davis and Larry Czonka.
10. Thurman Thomas, Buffalo Bills/Miami Dolphins. 16,532 total yards. Thomas, along with Roger Craig of the 49ers, served as a precursor to the "modern running back" many give Marshall Faulk credit for creating.
With 472 career receptions, the Bills' running back joined Jim Kelly and Andre Reed in leading the team to an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowls. Thomas played in the third most games on this list (182), and averaged just under five yards per touch for his career (4.9).
9. OJ Simpson, Buffalo Bills/San Francisco 49ers. 13,377 total yards. And no, I don't have a grudge against the Bills. Simpson played in 11 seasons and was the first back to break the 200 yard plateau in a single game more than once. He scored only 75 touchdowns in his career, but boasts the second highest career yards per reception average on this list (10.5).
8. Eric Dickerson, LA Rams/Indianapolis Colts. 15,396 total yards. Best known for his goggles and upright running style, Dickerson was arguably the most consistent back in the 1980s. Though not much of a receiver, Dickerson ran for over 13,000 yards in his career. Dickerson also made the move from Indianapolis to the Rams in an effort to gain wider exposure (and money), a move Colts fans would see again with Faulk.
7. Marshall Faulk, Indianapolis Colts/St Louis Rams.19,154 total yards. Faulk made the move to St Louis after another future Hall of Fame runner, Jerome Bettis, left. Faulk led the way for small, less traditional back in the NFL by becoming as much a receiver out of the backfield as a runner.
Faulk is the top on this list in career receptions (767) and receiving yards (6,875). Faulk's versatility helped him get into the end zone 136 times in his career, and helped the "Greatest Show on Turf" win a Super Bowl.
6. LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego Chargers. 14,908 total yards (through nine games of his 8th NFL season). The only player still active on this list, Tomlinson has been as prolific as any back in history reaching the end zone.
In more than four fewer seasons, Tomlinson is within two touchdowns of Faulk's career total (134), and is the current single-season record holder for touchdowns. Without any involvement in the kick return game in San Diego, Tomlinson is averaging an astounding 124.2 total yards from scrimmage per game.
5. Emmitt Smith, Dallas Cowboys/Arizona Cardinals. 21,579 total yards. Yes, I am putting the career leader in total yards at the bottom of my Top Five. While Smith indeed has gained more total yards than anyone else on this list, and scored more touchdowns, consider those numbers in the context of having played 36 more games than the closest player on this list (Walter Payton).
Smith is the only player in the top seven that averaged under 100 yards per game from scrimmage (95.5), and has the lowest career yards per touch average (4.4) of anyone on this list. With the benefit of the best offensive line in the NFL for the better part of a decade, the enormity of the numbers he produced forces me to rank him in the Top Five.
4. Barry Sanders, Detroit Lions.18,190 total yards. What could have been...Sanders retired, understandably, after years of frustration in Detroit. Sanders topped 2,000 rushing yards in a single season, and ranks second on this list in touchdowns to Smith (140).
Sanders 5.3 yards per touch grossly understates the quality he put on the field when you consider that nearly 35 percent of his career carries went for a loss. Sanders created the word "escapability," and took running the football to an art form. Watching slow motion film of Barry Sanders makes your ankles hurt sitting down.
3. Gale Sayers, Chicago Bears.6,263 total yards...from scrimmage. In an injury-shortened career, Sayers also totaled 2,781 return yards and scored six return touchdowns. Including his kick returns yards, Sayers averaged an unheard-of 133 yards per game of offense, making him truly the mold from which the likes of Devin Hester and Joshua Cribbs are now getting paid.
Sayers impacted the game in every facet, and still holds the records with six touchdowns in a single game. If not for injuries destroying his wonderfully gifted legs, Sayers' numbers could have been astronomical. He played in only 68 games in the NFL.
2. Jim Brown, Cleveland Browns. 14,811 total yards. Probably the most punishing runner on this list, Brown is number two only because, like Sanders, to end his career prematurely. In just nine seasons, Brown average 5.7 yards for every time he touched the football. He scored 126 touchdowns in his career before leaving the league to pursue acting.
Also in the lacrosse Hall of Fame, Brown showed the opposite approach to defenders that Sanders did; if you were going to try to tackle him, Brown would make sure you thought twice before doing so again. His size and speed was something the NFL had never seen before, and arguably hasn't seen since his retirement.
1. Walter Payton, Chicago Bears. 21,264 total yards. "Sweetness" ran behind some of the worst offensive lines in the NFL during his 13 year career, and still produced. Proving his versatility, Payton is second on this list to Faulk in receptions, as well (492). Payton was the perfect mix of Sanders' ability to make a defender miss and Brown's willingness to run a defensive back into the ground.
Payton has been quoted as saying he didn't ever want to go out of bounds. Best remembered for his smile, Payton carried the ball like a loaf of bread and employed one of the best stiff-arms the game has ever seen. His work outs are legendary, and his body of work shows it.
Mike Ditka will tell you to this day that his greatest regret in life is not giving the ball to Walter Payton on the goal line in Super Bowl XX.
This list is simply my opinion. I look forward to discussion about the merits and shortcomings of each back that's on my list.