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25 Greatest Running Backs in NFL History

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The running back position has played a vital role as a staple in the NFL since its inception. Even in the modern era of football, where quarterbacks and high-octane passing games are all the rage, a great rushing attack can make all the difference between winning and losing. Big pass plays are fun to watch, but there is still nothing more exciting than watching a truly great running back carve up a defense.

Over the years, there have been numerous outstanding running backs. Many of which are deserving to make this list, but there is only room for the 25 best. Factoring in various criteria such as statistics, personal bests, team accomplishments, supporting cast, the era in which they played and overall impact on the game, here are the 25 greatest running backs in NFL history.

Note: Statistics listed are for regular season games.

10 running backs that barely missed the cut (in alphabetical order):

Ottis Anderson
Larry Csonka
Corey Dillon
Priest Holmes
Bo Jackson
Steven Jackson
Fred Taylor
Herschel Walker
Ricky Watters
Ricky Williams

25. Marshawn Lynch

MarshawnLynch_RB_slide

Buffalo 2007-10; Seattle 2010-15, '19; Oakland 2017-18
(149 games — 10,413 rushing yards, 4.2 ypc, 85 rushing TDs; 12,627 yards from scrimmage, 94 total TDs)

Beast Mode’s freakish combination of power and finesse was unlike any running back that came before him. A five-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl XLVIII champion, Lynch’s highlight reels are that of legend.

24. Tiki Barber

TikiBarber_RB_slide

New York Giants 1997-2006
(154 games — 10,449 rushing yards, 4.7 ypc, 55 rushing TDs; 17,359 all-purpose yards, 68 total TDs)

Barber retired at the height of his career, rushing for at least 1,200 yards in each of his last six seasons with the Giants. His versatility as an outstanding pass catcher and blocker makes him one of the greatest all-purpose backs of all time. He ranks 15th in NFL history in yards from scrimmage.

23. Shaun Alexander

JimTaylor_RB_slide_nfl

Green Bay 1958-66, New Orleans 1967
(129 games — 8,597 rushing yards, 4.4 ypc, 83 rushing TDs; 10,539 all-purpose yards, 93 total TDs)
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1976

This bruising Hall of Fame fullback helped the Packers win four NFL championships and a victory in Super Bowl I. He took home NFL MVP honors in 1962 and is widely considered the greatest running back in Packer history.

(Photo courtesy of NFL.com)

21. Terrell Davis

TerrellDavis_2000_slide

Denver 1995-2001
(78 games — 7,607 rushing yards, 4.6 ypc; 8,887 yards from scrimmage, 65 total TDs)
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2017

Davis would likely be much higher up this list if not for concluding his career early due to injury. He accomplished so much in a very short period of time. He is one of just eight players to rush for at least 2,000 yards in a season. Davis also won two Super Bowls with the Broncos, a Super Bowl MVP Award and was the league MVP in 1998.

20. Edgerrin James

EdgerrinJames_RB_slide_getty

Indianapolis 1999-2005; Arizona 2006-08; Seattle 2009
(148 games — 12,246 rushing yards, 4.0 ypc, 80 rushing TDs; 15,610 yards from scrimmage, 91 total TDs)
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2020

James is the Colts all-time leading rusher. He also is a two-time NFL rushing champion and ranks 13th in NFL history in yards gained on the ground. His dynamic running style and pass-catching abilities made him one of the most dangerous backs in league history. James was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2020.

(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

19. Frank Gore

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San Francisco 2005-'14; Indianapolis 2015-'17; Miami 2018; Buffalo 2019; N.Y. Jets 2020
(241 games — 16,000 rushing yards, 4.3 ypc, 81 rushing TDs; 19,985 all-purpose yards, 99 total TDs)

Gore probably doesn't get the credit he deserves. However, his numbers tell the true story of a standout career that has yet to reach its conclusion. Statistically, Gore ranks among the best running backs to ever play the game. The five-time Pro Bowler ranks third on the all-time rushing list and fourth all-time in yards from scrimmage. He's also the first and only NFL player to accumulate 1,200 yards from scrimmage in 12 consecutive seasons.

18. Jerome Bettis

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Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams 1993-95; Pittsburgh 1996-2005
(192 games — 13,662 rushing yards, 3.9 ypc, 91 rushing TDs; 15,111 yards from scrimmage, 94 total TDs)
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2015

"The Bus" utilized a potent combination of size, power and speed to run through opposing defenders. Bettis ranks eighth in NFL history in rushing yards. He also helped the Steelers win Super Bowl XL and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

17. Franco Harris

FrancoHarris_RB_slide

Pittsburgh 1972-83; Seattle 1984
(173 games — 12,120 rushing yards, 4.1 ypc, 91 rushing TDs; 14,622 all-purpose yards, 100 total TDs)
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1990

Harris is the Steelers all-time leading rusher and the quintessential running back of his era. He helped the Steelers to four Super Bowl wins, garnering MVP honors in Super Bowl IX. He was also selected for nine Pro Bowls during his decorated Hall of Fame career.

16. Thurman Thomas

ThurmanThomas_RB_slide

Buffalo 1988-99; Miami 2000
(182 games — 12,074 rushing yards, 4.2 ypc, 65 rushing TDs; 16,532 yards from scrimmage, 88 total TDs)
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2007A five-time All-Pro selection, Thomas ranks 12th among running backs in total yards from scrimmage (16,532). He was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1991 and remains the only running back in NFL history to start in four consecutive Super Bowls.

15. John Riggins

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New York Jets 1971-75; Washington 1976-79; ‘81-85

(175 games — 11,352 rushing yards, 3.9 ypc, 104 rushing TDs; 13,442 yards from scrimmage, 116 total TDs)
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1992

The Hall of Fame running back often referred to as "Diesel" was known for his punishing running style and freakish toughness. He is one of just eight players in NFL history to rush for at least 10,000 yards and score at least 100 rushing touchdowns. Riggins can also add Super Bowl champion, Super Bowl MVP and NFL MVP to his resume.

(Photo courtesy of NFL.com)

14. Tony Dorsett

TonyDorsett_RB_slide_getty

Dallas 1977-87; Denver 1988
(173 games — 12,739 rushing yards, 4.3 ypc, 77 rushing TDs; 16,326 all-purpose yards, 91 total TDs)
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1994

Dorsett was a home-run threat every time he touched the football. He is tied for the NFL record for the longest run from scrimmage (99 yards), which can never be broken for obvious reasons. Dorsett also is the No. 10 rusher in NFL history, a Super Bowl Champion (XII) and a Hall of Famer.

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(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

13. Gale Sayers

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Chicago 1965-71
(68 games — 4,956, 5.0 ypc, 39 rushing TDs; 9,435 all-purpose yards, 56 total TDs)
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1977
NFL 100 All-Time Team (2019)

"The Kansas Comet" was virtually unstoppable before his career was sadly cut short due to injury. The Hall of Fame back once scored six touchdowns in a single game, an NFL record. Sayers scored 22 touchdowns in his rookie season, the most of any rookie in NFL history. He also holds the record for the highest career kickoff return average (30.56). Sayers is often referred to as the greatest of all time by those who played with and against him.

12. O.J. Simpson

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Buffalo 1969-77; San Francisco 1978-79
(135 games — 11,236 rushing yards, 4.7 ypc, 61 rushing TDs; 14,368 all-purpose yards, 76 total TDs)
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1985
NFL 100 All-Time Team (2019)

The now infamous Simpson, or "The Juice" as he was known in his playing days, was one of the most gifted and dynamic running backs in NFL history. His Hall of Fame career included four NFL rushing titles, NFL MVP honors in 1973, and six Pro Bowl selections. He also was the first to rush for 2,000 yards in a season, needing only 14 games to do so.

11. Curtis Martin

CurtisMartin_RB_slide

New England 1995-97; New York Jets 1998-2006
(168 games — 14,101 rushing yards, 4.0 ypc, 90 rushing TDs; 17,430 yards from scrimmage, 100 total TDs)
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2012

Martin is the New York Jets’ all-time leading rusher and is sixth in NFL history. The Hall of Fame back also is 10th in yards from scrimmage. He is the oldest player in NFL history to win a rushing title (1,694 yards in 2004 at age 31).

10. Marcus Allen

MarcusAllen_RB_slide

Los Angeles Raiders 1982-92; Kansas City 1993-97
(222 games — 12,243 rushing yards, 4.1 ypc, 123 rushing TDs; 17,654 yards from scrimmage, 145 total TDs)
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2003

Allen became the first player in NFL history to accumulate more than 10,000 rushing yards and 5,000 receiving yards. He took home Super Bowl XVIII MVP honors for his role in the Raiders’ win, which included an electrifying 74-yard touchdown run. The Hall of Fame back was named the NFL’s MVP in 1985 and ranks third in career rushing TDs with 123.

9. Earl Campbell

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Houston Oilers 1978-84, New Orleans 1984-85
(115 games — 9,407 rushing yards, 4.3 ypc, 74 rushing TDs; 10,213 yards from scrimmage, 74 total TDs)
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1991
NFL 100 All-Time Team (2019)

There isn’t another player in NFL history that ran the football with as much power and grace as “The Tyler Rose.” Campbell is still the only running back in NFL history to rush for more than 200 yards in four games in a single season. The Hall of Fame back was a three-time NFL rushing champion and took home league MVP honors three years in a row from 1978-80.

8. Eric Dickerson

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Los Angeles Rams 1983-87; Indianapolis 1987-91; Los Angeles Raiders 1992; Atlanta 1993
(146 games — 13,259 rushing yards, 4.4 ypc, 90 rushing TDs; 15,396 yards from scrimmage, 96 total TDs)
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of
NFL 100 All-Time Team (2019)

At 6-foot-3, Dickerson was not your prototypical running back, but he was one of the most successful backs to ever tote the pigskin. No one in NFL history has rushed for more yards in a single season than Dickerson (2,105 in 1984). Dickerson ranks ninth on the all-time rushing list and won four rushing titles during his Hall of Fame career.

7. Adrian Peterson

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Minnesota 2007- 16; New Orleans 2017; Arizona 2017; Washington 2018-2019; Detroit 2020
(180 games — 14,820 rushing yards, 4.6 ypc, 118 rushing TDs; 17,286 all-purpose yards, 124 total TDs)

A phenomenal combination of size, speed and athleticism, the Vikings’ all-time leading rusher is the ideal running back. Peterson holds the NFL record for the most rushing yards in a single game (296) and ranks top five in NFL history in both career rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. He has three NFL rushing titles to his credit to go along with an NFL MVP award (2012). Additionally, he is a seven-time All-Pro selection, seven-time Pro Bowler and holds multiple records. Peterson is already a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer.

6. Marshall Faulk

MarshallFaulk_RB_slide_getty

Indianapolis 1994-98; St. Louis Rams 1999-2005
(176 games — 12,279 rushing yards, 4.3 ypc, 100 rushing TDs; 19,190 all-purpose yards, 136 total TDs)
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2011

This do-it-all back is one of just two players in the history of the NFL to gain 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. He also holds the NFL record for the most consecutive seasons with at least 2,000 yards from scrimmage (4). Faulk is a Super Bowl champion (XXXIV), took home two NFL MVP awards (2000, ’01) and is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

5. LaDainian Tomlinson

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San Diego 2001-09; New York Jets 2010-11
(170 games — 13,684 rushing yards, 4.3 ypc, 145 rushing TDs; 18,456 yards from scrimmage, 162 total TDs)
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2017

Tomlinson was a threat to reach the end zone every time he touched the football. The 2006 NFL MVP is the seventh-leading rusher in NFL history and ranks third in touchdowns (162) behind only Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith. He also holds countless NFL records, most notably the single-season touchdown record (28), and the record for consecutive games with a touchdown (18). He would likely rank higher on this list if not for his teams' lack of overall success.

4. Emmitt Smith

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Dallas 1990-2002; Arizona 2003-04
(226 games — 18,355 rushing yards, 4.2 ypc, 164 rushing TDs; 21,579 yards from scrimmage, 175 total TDs)
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2010
NFL 100 All-Time Team (2019)

Smith’s ability to successfully attack opposing defenses unlike any other running back in history helped him become the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. He also holds NFL records for career rushing touchdowns, seasons with at least 1,000 rushing yards (11), as well as the record for career 100-yard rushing games (78). Smith won four NFL rushing titles and was a two-time NFL MVP (1992, '93). He also is a three-time Super Bowl champion (XXVII, XXVIII and XXX) and a Super Bowl MVP (XXVIII).

3. Walter Payton

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Chicago Bears 1975-87
(190 games — 16,726 rushing yards, 4.4 ypc, 110 rushing TDs; 21,803 all-purpose yards, 125 total TDs)
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1996
NFL 100 All-Time Team (2019)

When you think of elite running backs, "Sweetness" is one of the very first names that comes to mind. Payton set so many NFL records that they require their very own Wikipedia page. He was a three-time league MVP (1976, ’77, ’85), a nine-time Pro Bowler and a Super Bowl champion (XX) with the famed '85 Bears. Payton is regarded as the most prolific running back in the game's history. He passed away far too soon at the age of 46.

2. Barry Sanders

BarrySanders_RB_slide

Detroit 1989-98
(153 games — 15,269 rushing yards, 5.0 ypc, 99 rushing TDs; 18,308 all-purpose yards, 109 total TDs)
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2004
NFL 100 All-Time Team (2019)

Sanders was arguably the most exciting player to watch in NFL history. He seemed to defy the laws of physics and escape the seemingly impossible. The Hall of Fame back is still fourth on the career rushing list, despite playing just 10 seasons. He took home two NFL MVP awards (1991, '97), four NFL rushing titles ('90, '94, '96, '97), and he was selected to play in the Pro Bowl all 10 seasons. He also holds countless records in a career that many believe ended too soon.

1. Jim Brown

JimBrown_2000_slide

Cleveland 1957-65
(118 games — 12,312 rushing yards, 5.2 ypc, 106 rushing TDs; 15,459 all-purpose yards, 126 total TDs)
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1971
NFL 100 All-Time Team (2019)

In an era when defenses were built to stop the run, Brown dominated them all. He is the only running back in the history of the NFL to average more than 100 yards rushing per game (104.3). He also holds the NFL record for career yards per carry (5.2). Brown was an eight-time NFL rushing champion, a four-time NFL MVP and he was selected as an All-Pro eight times during his Hall of Fame career. He only played nine seasons, yet he is still arguably the greatest running back in any era of professional football.

— Rankings by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.