To me, there are two primary types of runners in the NFL: Bruisers and Dodgers.
Bruisers are what you would expect them to be—powerful runners that run through defenders, not around them.
Dodgers come in a variety of forms—guys with blazing speed, agile runners that juke out their opponents, smaller guys that manipulate their body in such a way that makes it difficult for defenders to hit them squarely—but they generally find ways to run around defenders, not through them.
Thus, we will attempt to classify the following players into the two following orders, offering a sub-order for each as well. These are the hardest running backs to tackle in NFL history.
Pinball: High agility, never gives a defender a clean hit, bounces off of tackles, great balance.
Glider: High agility, high acceleration, not top-end speed but always looks smooth.
Speed Demon: Blazing speed and acceleration.
Balanced: Equal balance of speed, agility, acceleration and tackle-shedding abilities.
Untouchable: Equal balance of extreme speed, ankle-breaking agility, shot-out-of-a-cannon acceleration and excellent vision.
Unstoppable: King of the Untouchables with strength to boot.
Bulldozer: Incredible strength, plows over would-be tacklers with brute force.
Missile: Runs through tackles using a combination of strength and speed, generally appears to be a very violent style of running.
Versatile: Similar to the Dodger-Balanced but with far more strength.
Perfection: Equal combination of every attribute listed here, extremely rare.
Harris was often derided for running out of bounds and avoiding contact during his NFL career, namely because he was an imposing figure who played at 6'2" and about 230 pounds.
But when you realize that he played for 12 seasons and rushed for 12,120 yards (13th-most all-time), his running style makes more sense. Plus, it worked for him and the Steelers, who won four Super Bowls during his time as a running back in Pittsburgh.
Thomas will probably always play second fiddle in his generation to Emmitt Smith, which is where his ranking belongs. Thomas was a bit more explosive than Smith was, though Smith had better balance and was a little more well-rounded as a runner.
Still, history underrates the talented Thomas, who was a handful for defenses to deal with week in and week out.
The fact that Marcus Allen played fullback when the Raiders drafted Bo Jackson still amazes me. Allen could do a little bit of everything, meaning he could beat you in just about every way a running back can beat you.
We can sum up this slide with one word: strength.
Sub-Order: Speed Demon
While Johnson certainly has excellent agility, the name of his game is ultimately speed. Johnson simply plays the game at a higher speed than almost every other player in the NFL.
When Johnson gets loose, it is generally because he hits the hole faster, he hits his second gear sooner and gets to the end zone more quickly than any other back in the NFL. He can juke a defender, but his big plays are almost always as a result of his blinding speed.
To me, what made Tomlinson great was his excellent lateral quickness and ability to shed tacklers as though he had covered his jersey in motor grease.
Linebackers are still having nightmares about his jump cut.
(Song accompanying this video NSFW)
If he wasn't so big and powerful, he would probably be more well known for his excellent agility.
But his nickname was "The Bus," so it seems only fitting that he be remembered for barreling through tacklers.
I think the following excerpt from Tony Dorsett's bio on the Pro Football Hall of Fame's web site summarizes his running style perfectly:
What they got was a player who had it all . . . the swift, smooth strides; the sharp, crisp cuts; the uncanny knack of finding daylight in the chaos along the line of scrimmage. Every time he touched a football, opponents shuddered. He turned small gainers into big gainers and routine plays into touchdowns.
Faulk possessed every single attribute a "Dodger" runner could have, and he grades out very highly in each of them.
He was fast, agile, had excellent acceleration and vision, and rarely allowed defenders to hit him squarely, making him incredibly difficult to tackle. And given the fact that he so often received the ball in space given his otherworldly pass-catching abilities, he was a chore for defenders all game long.
The most complete runner of his generation, Peterson combines incredible strength with top-end speed and impressive balance. While he may not have quite the agility as other backs, he does not lack the capability to juke a defender out of their cleats.
Barring injury, Peterson will retire as one of the game's finest runners in its history.
To me, three things stand out when I recall watching Smith play and replaying his highlights: He had amazing agility, strength and balance.
The agility in the video will speak for itself, and the way he bounces off of would-be tacklers makes his strength evident. But the attribute that tied those two things together and made him so incredible was his balance.
He had the balance to maintain his footing and allow his body to go where its momentum was being taken from a hit rather than resist his momentum and lose his center of gravity. He was low enough to the ground when he made his cuts that he was able to often dip below defenders, rarely giving them a large surface area to contact. Without amazing balance, he simply couldn't have made such fast cuts while simultaneously dipping under defenders.
O.J. Simpson ran for 2,003 yards in 1973.
In 14 games!
It's a shame The Juice forever tarnished his legacy after his career—he was a truly special talent on a football field.
(Go to the 1:52 mark on the video)
Sub-Order: Missile (with a bulldozer's shovel bucket)
They called him "The Diesel."
Need I write more?
Earl Campbell was a physical and powerful workhorse that undoubtedly had his career shortened because of his running style and workload. In five of the eight seasons he played, he carried the ball over 300 times. But keep this in mind:
In spite of the constant pounding he took from opposing defenders, Earl missed only six games out of 115 because of injuries.
While he could have taken a pointer or two from Franco Harris on how to extend his career, there is no question that the man was a load to bring down.
Known for an upright running style, Dickerson was defined as a running back by his versatility. Dick Vermeil recalled him lacking a weakness:
A graceful yet powerful runner, Dickerson simply befuddled opposing defenses. The more he carried the ball, the better he seemed to play.
“I can’t define a weakness in Eric Dickerson,” stated then-TV sports analyst and former Philadelphia Eagles coach Dick Vermeil. “Although all great backs are multi-talented, most have one thing they do extremely well. But this guy can plow through a pile of bodies like (John) Riggins and then put on the moves like (Tony) Dorsett.”
When a guy like Vermeil evokes both Riggins and Dorsett to describe you, well, you were one hell of a running back.
Has there ever been a running back that combined incredible athletic ability with such a violent running style?
The answer, in case you were wondering, is no.
Gale Sayers remains the greatest runner ever to be classified under the "Untouchable" sub-order. His combination of speed, agility and vision trumps that of any other "Untouchable" runner.
Imagine Devin Hester with more strength and tackle-shedding ability, and you have Gale Sayers.
Sub-Order: (Could Have Reached) Perfection
If Bo Jackson had played longer, well, he may have left the game as the greatest runner ever.
Sadly, we'll never know.
Jim Brown was the perfect combination of skills a runner could possess. He could run through you, around you or right by you, depending on what the situation called for. He was bigger than many of his opponents, and he combined that by being faster than most of them as well.
If you were designing the a runner without a weakness, you would design Jim Brown.
Is it contradictory to call Jim Brown the perfect running back, but still feel that Barry Sanders was harder to tackle?
I don't know, but that's how I feel.
The "Unstoppable" sub-order of the "Dodgers" combines the uncanny combination of perfect balance, blazing speed, remarkable vision, surprising strength, instantaneous acceleration, unparalleled agility and the ability to bounce off of tackles while preventing defenders from ever getting a clean shot on the ball-carrier.
Barry Sanders is the only known runner in the "Unstoppable" sub-order, and I could watch his highlights for days, both because I love his highlights and he compiled enough of them to stretch out over many hours.