25 Greatest Running Backs in NFL History
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.
10 running backs that barely missed the cut (in alphabetical order):
— Rankings by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
25. Marshawn Lynch
Buffalo 2007-10; Seattle 2010-15
(127 games - 9,112 rushing yards, 4.3 ypc, 74 rushing TDs; 11,091 yards from scrimmage, 83 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.
Note: Statistics listed are for regular season games.
24. Steven Jackson
St. Louis Rams 2004-12; Atlanta 2013-14; New England 2015
(160 games - 11,438 rushing yards, 4.1 ypc, 69 rushing TDs; 15,191 all-purpose yards, 78 total TDs)
Jackson carried an otherwise anemic Rams’ offense for years with his high level of play and consistency. A rare combination of size, power and speed, Jackson rushed in excess of 1,000 yards for eight consecutive seasons.
23. Tiki Barber
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 12th in NFL history in yards from scrimmage.
22. Shaun Alexander
Seattle 2000-07; Washington 2008
(123 games - 9,453 rushing yards, 4.3 ypc, 100 rushing TDs; 10,973 yards from scrimmage, 112 total TDs)
Alexander is just one of eight running backs in the history of the NFL with at least 100 rushing touchdowns. The 2005 NFL MVP scored 112 total TDs in just 96 starts. Alexander’s 27 rushing touchdowns in 2005 tied for the second most in a single season.
21. Jim Taylor
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)
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)
20. Terrell Davis
(78 games – 7,607 rushing yards, 4.6 ypc; 8,887 yards from scrimmage, 65 total TDs)
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 seven 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. He was elected for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2017.
19. Edgerrin James
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)
James is the Colts all-time leading rusher. He also is a two-time NFL rushing champion and ranks 11th 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.
(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)
18. Jerome Bettis
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)
“The Bus” utilized a potent combination of size, power and speed to run through opposing defenders. Bettis ranks sixth 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
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)
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
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)
Thomas ranks eighth 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. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007.
15. John Riggins
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)
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 seven players in NFL history to rush for at least 10,000 yards and score at least 100 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
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)
Dorsett was a home-run threat every time he touched the football. He holds the NFL record for the longest run from scrimmage (99 yards), which can never be broken for obvious reasons. Dorsett also is the No. 8 rusher in NFL history, a Super Bowl Champion (XII) and a Hall of Famer.
(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)
13. Gale Sayers
(68 games – 4,956, 5.0 ypc, 39 rushing TDs; 9,435 all-purpose yards, 56 total TDs)
“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 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
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)
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
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)
Martin is the New York Jets’ all-time leading rusher and is fourth in NFL history. The Hall of Fame back also is eighth 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
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)
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.
9. Earl Campbell
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)
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
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)
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 Eric Dickerson (2,105 in 1984). Dickerson finished his Hall of Fame career seventh on the all-time rushing list and won four rushing titles.
7. Adrian Peterson
(123 games – 11,747 rushing yards, 4.9 ypc, 97 rushing TDs; 14,108 all-purpose yards, 102 total TDs)
The 2015 NFL rushing champion and Vikings’ all-time leading rusher has gained at least 1,000 yards from scrimmage and scored double-digit touchdowns in every season in which he has started more than one game. He also holds the NFL record for the most rushing yards in a single game (296). A sure-fire Hall of Famer, Peterson already has three NFL rushing titles to his credit to go along with an NFL MVP award, seven Pro Bowl selections and multiple records. And he isn’t done.
6. Marshall Faulk
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)
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
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)
Tomlinson was a threat to reach the end zone every time he touched the football. The 2006 NFL MVP is the fifth-leading rusher in NFL history. He 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 lack of overall team success. Tomlinson will be inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2017.
4. Emmitt Smith
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)
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), a Super Bowl MVP (XXVIII) and a Hall of Famer (class of 2010).
3. Walter Payton
Chicago Bears 1975-87
(190 games – 16,726 rushing yards, 4.4 ypc, 110 rushing TDs; 21,803 all-purpose yards, 125 total TDs)
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 was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1996 and 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
(153 games – 15,269 rushing yards, 5.0 ypc, 99 rushing TDs; 18,308 all-purpose yards, 109 total TDs)
Sanders was arguably the most exciting player to watch in NFL history. He seemded to defy the laws of physics and escape the seemingly impossible. The Hall of Fame back is still third 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
(118 games – 12,312 rushing yards, 5.2 ypc, 106 rushing TDs; 15,459 all-purpose yards, 126 total TDs)
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.