The Top 10 NFL Running Backs of All Time

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistOctober 4, 2018

The Top 10 NFL Running Backs of All Time

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    TONY GUTIERREZ/Associated Press

    The running back position is shifting in today's era of football, but NFL history features an impressive group of star ball-carriers.

    Up until the mid-2000s, a standout in the backfield could be an overwhelming difference-maker. A few modern players have become stars, too.

    Most of the best running backs in NFL history played multiple decades ago. But where do Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith fit alongside legends such as Jim Brown and Walter Payton? That's what we're here to determine.

    Individual production and accomplishments weighed heavily in the following rankings, as did longevity. Team success during a player's career was considered as well, but it served primarily as a tiebreaker.

Honorable Mentions

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    Kevork Djansezian/Associated Press

    Marcus Allen: Allen's mid-career lull didn't stop the Hall of Fame from calling in 2003. Despite the four-season stretch during which he shared carries with Bo Jackson, Allen finished his NFL career with 17,654 yards from scrimmage and 144 rushing and receiving touchdowns.

    Earl Campbell: Similar to Allen, longevity prevented Campbell from finishing within the top 10 here. He spent only eight seasons in the NFL, but his five seasons of 1,300-plus rushing yards demands attention. Campbell racked up 9,407 rushing yards and 74 touchdowns in only 115 games.

    Gale Sayers: Injuries robbed Sayers of a promising career. But when healthy, he was special. The versatile star averaged 5.0 yards per carry across his 68 appearances, tallying 800-plus rushing yards five times and scoring a total of 56 touchdowns.

    O.J. Simpson: Decades after his NFL career, it's become difficult to separate Simpson the player from Simpson the person. But during his 11 seasons, the USC product scampered for 11,236 yardswith a single-season high of 2,003and 61 scores.

    Thurman Thomas: The powerful runner played a pivotal role in the Buffalo Bills winning four straight AFC championships. Thomas surpassed the 1,000-yard barrier for eight straight seasons, ultimately collecting 16,352 yards from scrimmage and 88 touchdowns.

10. LaDainian Tomlinson

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    Chris Park/Associated Press

    LaDainian Tomlinson is one of only three runners in NFL history to secure 100 receptions in a season. He accomplished the feat in 2003, when he also scampered for 1,645 yards and 13 scores on the ground.

    None too shabby, no?

    The TCU product twice led the NFL in rushing and also set a still-standing league record with 28 rushing touchdowns in 2006. Tomlinson amassed 13,684 yards and 145 scores as a runner, adding 624 receptions for 4,772 yards and 17 touchdowns.

    After a career that included an MVP award, three first-team All-Pro selections and five Pro Bowls, Tomlinson made the trip to Canton, Ohio, as a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee in 2017.

9. Franco Harris

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    Gene Puskar/Associated Press

    Rarely flashy, always productive.

    A key contributor on four Super Bowl-winning teams, Franco Harris led the Pittsburgh Steelers in rushing for 12 seasons. He cleared the 1,000-yard mark eight times and bullied his way to 12,120 rushing yards and 91 touchdowns during 13 NFL seasons.

    "For five years, he was our offense," Pittsburgh legend Terry Bradshaw said in 1983, according to the New York Times.

    Harris managed a relatively tame 307 catches in his career, but his "Immaculate Reception" during the 1972 playoffs remains one of the most iconic plays in NFL history.

8. Tony Dorsett

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    Mike Murphy/Associated Press

    Had a strike not shortened the 1982 campaign, Tony Dorsett would've opened his career with nine straight 1,000-yard efforts.

    Nevertheless, he posted eight such years with a single-season high of 1,646. By the time Dorsett retired 1988, his 12,739 yards ranked second all time behind only Walter Payton.

    The 1977 Offensive Rookie of the Year, Dorsett earned a first-team All-Pro selection in 1981, four Pro Bowl nods and a space in Canton as a member of the 1994 class.

7. Marshall Faulk

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    ELAINE THOMPSON/Associated Press

    To this point, no player in NFL history has boasted Marshall Faulk's combination of production as both a runner and receiver.

    Not only does he rank 12th with 12,279 rushing yards, but the former Indianapolis Colts and St. Louis Rams star has the most receiving yards (6,875) and second-most receptions (767) by a running back. Faulk even posted a 1,000-1,000 season in 1999.

    For three straight years, Faulk won AP Offensive Player of the Year. He earned seven Pro Bowl nods and three first-team All-Pro appearances, and he also won the Super Bowl with the Rams in 1999.

6. Eric Dickerson

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    Susan Ragan/Associated Press

    Eric Dickerson wasted no time announcing himself as an NFL superstar. During his debut season for the Los Angeles Rams, the SMU product cruised to 1,808 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground with 51 catches for 404 yards and two more scores.

    Would you believe he won Rookie of the Year?

    In his second year, Dickerson broke O.J. Simpson's single-season rushing record with 2,105 yards.

    "People talk about the greatest runners," Dickerson told Rhiannon Walker of The Undefeated. "Some say Walter [Payton] is the best, some say O.J., some may say me, some say Jim Brown. I just say, I'm good."

    In 1986, Dickerson took home Offensive Player of the Year while earning one of his six Pro Bowl nods and one of his five first-team All-Pro appearances. Dickerson, who also paced the NFL in rushing with the Indianapolis Colts in 1988, had 13,259 rushing yards in his Hall of Fame career.

5. Adrian Peterson

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    Mark Tenally/Associated Press

    The only active player highlighted, Adrian Peterson entered the league as a highly regarded prospect. Throughout 12 seasons and counting, the Oklahoma product has backed up the hype.

    Peterson was most successful during his 10-year stint with the Minnesota Vikings, running for 2,097 yards in 2012 and narrowly missing Dickerson's single-season record. AP finished with 11,747 rushing yards and 97 touchdowns as a member of the Vikings.

    Already a top-10 rusher in league history, Peterson has since played for three teams—the Arizona Cardinals, New Orleans Saints and Washington Redskins. The 2007 Offensive Rookie of the Year has an MVP, seven Pro Bowls and four first-team All-Pro nods on his resume.

4. Barry Sanders

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    Roberto Borea/Associated Press

    During the Super Bowl era, the Detroit Lions' most successful run coincided with Barry Sanders' career. He propelled the franchise to the playoffs five times. Unfortunately, frustration with Detroit's inability to build a contender led Sanders to retire after 10 seasons.

    But what a decade it was.

    Sanders collected 1,300-plus rushing yards a stunning nine times, topping out at 2,053 yards in a 1997 MVP season. He totaled 15,269 yards on the ground, 2,921 as a receiver and 109 combined touchdowns.

    In addition to earning Offensive Rookie of the Year, Sanders secured 10 Pro Bowl nods and six first-team All-Pro honors.

3. Jim Brown

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    Associated Press

    On talent alone, Jim Brown merits a higher position. However, other interests swayed him from the football field after nine years.

    During that successful run, the Cleveland Browns star punished defenses for a then-record 12,312 yards and 106 touchdowns on the ground. He led the NFL in rushing eight times and was a first-team All-Pro choice in each of those years.

    "I quit with regret but not sorrow," Brown said at the time of his retirement, per Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden.

    Brown, who gathered three MVP awards, a trip to nine Pro Bowls and one NFL championship, entered the Hall of Fame in 1971.

2. Emmitt Smith

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    STEVE HAMM/Associated Press

    Emmitt Smith obliterated the NFL's record books.

    After 15 years in the league, the Cowboys legend held several NFL recordsmost notably standing atop the chart for single-season touchdowns (25), career rushing yards (18,355) and career rushing touchdowns (164). The latter two marks remain untouched.

    "It will be broken," Smith said of his career rushing record when he retired, according to the New York Times.

    Until that happens, the 1993 MVP, three-time Super Bowl champion, four-time All-Pro and eight-time Pro Bowler will be a front-runner in the conversation for greatest running back of all time.

1. Walter Payton

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    From 1975 through 1987, Walter Payton made a mockery of hopeful tacklers with high steps and stiff arms.

    Highlighted by an MVP-winning 1977 season with 1,852 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns, "Sweetness" surpassed the 1,200-yard barrier 10 times. No other player in NFL history has accomplished that. Payton's career 16,726 rushing yards stood as a record upon his retirement.

    "Sweetness" still ranks third all time in yards from scrimmage (21,264). Among his Hall of Fame-worthy list of accomplishments are nine Pro Bowls and five first-team All-Pro nods.

    Payton's span of elite production is unparalleled at the position.