Top 20 Greatest NFL Running Backs of All Time
Top 20 All-Time Greatest NFL Running Backs
The debate of all-time greatest anything is tough, especially in sports, because it's difficult to compare professional athletes of different eras. This list of all-time greatest NFL running backs is no different; no matter how you slice it, someone will disagree.
Some folks rank "greatness" as number of championships while others go by stats while still others go be legacy and/or the awe factor of watching a certain player on the field. For this list, we've tried to take all elements into account when ranking the greatest runners in football's amazing history. Indeed, our list dates all the way back to the 1920s and expands to the present day, so we've got it all covered.
We've taken a stand in the arguments of Barry Sanders vs. Emmitt Smith, Sanders vs. Walter Payton, Payton vs. Smith, Smith vs. Jim Brown and several others. Regardless, please enjoy the highlights of each player's career in our rankings of the greatest NFL running backs of all time.
Don't forget to comment below and let us know if you would rank them differently!
20. Marshall Faulk
Marshall Faulk is arguably the closest thing to Barry Sanders the NFL has seen with his elusive running style. However, he created his own legacy while revolutionizing the running back position by making most of his big plays off catches out of the backfield. In 1999, Faulk set the single-season record for most yards from scrimmage with a total of 2,429, which included 1,381 on the ground and 1,048 through the air. The record has since been broken, but Faulk is still one of only two runnings backs to net 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 receiving the same season.
19. Jerome Bettis
Jerome Bettis began his career with the Rams, but cemented his legacy with the Steelers. He's sixth on the all-time rushing list and led Pittsburgh to a title in Super Bowl XL. He was certainly a power running back as many said he was too big to play the position, but Bettis proved the doubters wrong by compiling 13,662 career yards and 94 touchdowns.
18. John Riggins
John Riggins was the ageless wonder who set 14 "oldest player" records during his Hall of Fame career. Although he debuted in the NFL with the Jets, Riggins' legacy was built during his much longer tenure with the Redskins, which included one title and a Super Bowl MVP award. Riggins is 16th on the all-time rushing list after compiling a ton of yards in the playoffs; he holds the record for most attempts and yards in a single postseason and he held the record for most playoff games with 100-rushing yards until Emmitt Smith broke it.
17. Curtis Martin
Although he's not nearly as popular as some of the other names on this list, Martin was as steady as the day is long during a Hall of Fame career. A Bill Parcells draft pick, Martin appeared in Super Bowl XXXI with the Patriots before really solidifying his legacy with the Jets. At age 31, he became the oldest player to ever lead the league in rushing and is fourth on the all-time rushing list behind Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders.
16. Franco Harris
Franco Harris is remembered mostly by today's generation for his "Immaculate Reception." Down by one with 22 seconds left in a 1972 playoff game against the Raiders, the Steelers legend caught a deflected pass right before it hit the ground and took it all the way in for a touchdown to win the game. The rest of Harris' career is quite legendary as well: he's 13th on the all-time rushing list and helped Terry Bradshaw lead the Steelers to four Super Bowl wins in six years. Naturally, Harris is a member of the Hall of Fame.
15. Thurman Thomas
Thurman Thomas isn't as popular as a lot of the other backs on this list, but that doesn't make him any less relevant in the discussion. He's 14th on the all-time rushing list and led the Buffalo Bills to four straight Super Bowl appearances in the early 1990s. Thomas played with a chip on his shoulder after slipping to the second round of the 1988 NFL Draft because of a knee injury. That aggressive style along with his raw talent landed him a spot in the Hall of Fame.
14. Earl Campbell
The first overall pick in 1978 out of Texas recorded 95 total yards and 74 touchdowns during his Hall of Fame career. He never played in a Super Bowl, but Earl Campbell won a Heisman Trophy and an NFL MVP award while plowing through defenders as one of the best power runners in history.
13. OJ Simpson
OJ Simpson became the first player to rush for over 2,000 yards, telling 2,003 in 1973. Although a handful of players have since accomplished the same feat, Simpson is the only one to do it during a 14-game season (the NFL expanded to 16-game seasons in 1978). From 1972 to 1976, Simpson averaged well over 1,500 yards per season while playing just 14 games each year. He won a Heisman Trophy and an NFL regular season MVP award during his Hall of Fame career.
12. Gale Sayers
Gale Sayers was a fantastic Bears running back, although he's primarily considered the first great kick returner of the modern NFL era. Sayers set the NFL record for most touchdowns by a rookie with 22 in 1965 and his career average of 30.56 yards per kickoff return is the highest in NFL history. Sayers recorded a career average of five yards per carry and 56 total touchdowns on his way to the Hall of Fame.
11. Tony Dorsett
The original TD set one of the only NFL records that can never be broken: a 99-yard touchdown run against the Vikings in a 1983 Monday Night Football game. Tony Dorsett is eighth on the all-time rushing list and led the Cowboys to a win in Super Bowl XII. He's also one of two players (Marcus Allen) to win the Heisman Trophy, a College Football National Championship, a Super Bowl and be enshrined both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame.
10. Bronko Nagurski
Bronko Nagurski led the Bears to three NFL championships in the 1930s as an intimidating runner who paved the way for power backs like Jim Brown and then the next generations that included Earl Campbell. A 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, Nagurski was really one of the first true fullbacks to ever play the game, although he played the running back position and earned Hall of Fame honors in the process.
9. Red Grange
Red Grange's legacy is widely disputed, as are his stats. However, he led the Bears to two NFL Championships in the 1930s while playing alongside Bronko Nagurski. Grange was a stellar running back and defensive back and the stories of his historic career include a game-winning touchdown in the 1932 title game as well as touchdown-saving tackle in the 1933 championship that ensured a win for the Bears. Grange's Hall of Fame career included a short stint in which he made the first attempt to create the AFL, which came into regular existence in 1960.
8. LaDainian Tomlinson
LaDainian Tomlinson is the second-youngest player on our list, having last played in the 2011 NFL season. Tomlinson cemented his legacy with the San Diego Chargers, setting multiple NFL records, including most rushing touchdowns in a single season (28 in 2006). Tomlinson also set the mark for most points scored in a season that same season with 186. The former TCU standout is considered the first great running back of the new millennium.
7. Adrian Peterson
Adrian Peterson is the only player on the list who is still playing. He's only completed six seasons, but he's already 33rd on the all-time rushing list with 8,849 yards and is fresh off his first 2,000-yard season. Peterson is an incredible runner who has recorded at least 1,298 yards in each of his pro seasons except 2011, which was shortened because of a torn ACL. If he can stay healthy for another seven or eight years, Peterson will likely be considered the greatest running back of all time by the time he retires.
6. Marcus Allen
Marcus Allen is 12th on the all-time rushing list, but the highlight of his career is one of the best plays in NFL history: a 74-yard touchdown run in Super Bowl XVIII that included broken tackles and shifty moves in the backfield before breaking free and outrunning the Redskins' defense during a 38-9 victory by the Raiders. Allen paired with Bo Jackson for five seasons and the two are widely considered the greatest running back duo in NFL history.
5. Eric Dickerson
In 1978, Eric Dickerson set the NFL record for most rushing yards in a single season with 2,105. Although a few players have come close, no one has broken it and that record is the epitome of Dickerson's legacy. Of course, he's also seventh on the NFL's all-time rushing list and a member of the Hall of Fame, so there was certainly more to his career than just that one magical season.
4. Emmitt Smith
The NFL's all-time leading rusher ran behind arguably the best offensive line in the history of the game for the first half of his career. However, Emmitt Smith still put up elite numbers long after the Cowboys' dynasty of the 1990s ended. Although many said he was too small to succeed in the NFL, Smith won both regular season MVP and Super Bowl MVP honors during his career while leading Dallas to three Super Bowl wins in four years.
3. Jim Brown
Jim Brown is by far the oldest player on the all-time rushing list, coming in at No. 9 with 12,312 yards that were all compiled between 1957 and 1965 with the Cleveland Browns. Brown was the first of the all-time great running backs as he was absolutely dominant during his heyday. Think of Adrian Peterson playing in the NFL 55 years ago (with even more power) and that will give you an idea of just how amazing Brown was while leading the Browns to an NFL Championship in 1964. The league's official website recognizes Brown as the second-best player of all time.
2. Walter Payton
Walter Payton held the all-time rushing record until Emmitt Smith broke it in 2002. "Sweetness" was as graceful an NFL players as their ever was and was named the fifth-greatest player in NFL history by the league's official website. Payton led the Bears to their only Super Bowl win in franchise history in 1985 and will forever be recognized as one of the greatest running backs in NFL history.
1. Barry Sanders
The man averaged over 1,500 yards per season throughout his career, which was spent entirely with the woeful Lions. Barry Sanders retired in his prime at age 30 just 1,457 yards short of Walter Payton's then all-time rushing mark. Although he retired so early and he never won a Super Bowl, many believe he would have easily reached 20,000 career rushing yards and multiple titles if he had played for teams as talented as Payton's or Emmitt Smith's and hadn't retired so young. For football history gurus, Sanders' bizarre, early retirement will leave us forever wondering "what if?"
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