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20 greatest running backs in NFL history

20 greatest running backs in NFL history

Adrian Peterson
All-Pro Reels from District of Columbia, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

There might be no more difficult task for NFL fans than picking and choosing the best running backs of all time. The great quarterbacks are often obvious, but there have been so many running backs to make an impact over the years that choosing the best RBs ever is no easy task.

So many running backs are a dime a dozen, making it difficult at times to pick out the greatest running backs ever from a large pool of candidates.

Best running backs of all time

Despite the great challenge, we have done our best to pick out the 20 best RBs in NFL history. After all, the best of the best have always been able to stick out in a crowd. The problem is only being able to limit it to the 20 greatest running backs of all time so that the best of the best truly get the recognition they deserve.

With that, here are the 20 best running backs of all time.

20. Terrell Davis

His career may have been a little short, but it packed a lot of punch. In his first four seasons, Terrell Davis rushed for over 6,400 yards and 56 touchdowns. That includes the 1998 season when he took home MVP honors after rushing for over 2,000 yards and 21 touchdowns.

He was also a three-time Pro Bowler and helped the Broncos back-to-back two Super Bowls, winning Super Bowl MVP honors in the first win, accomplishing a lot in a brief period of time.

19. John Riggins

While John Riggins didn’t always put up gaudy numbers, he was a tough runner.

He also played 15 seasons and had a nose for the end zone. Despite only making the Pro Bowl once, Riggins owns a lot of NFL records, most of which are related to being the oldest running back to accomplish something.


18. Jerome Bettis

True to his name, The Bus was hard to stop once he got going.

He also kept running for a long time, playing 13 seasons and going to the Pro Bowl six times. For his career, Jerome Bettis averaged over 1,000 yards per season and finally won a Super Bowl in the final season of his Hall of Fame career.

17. Frank Gore

In terms of durability, there aren’t many running backs who can top Frank Gore. He played 16 seasons, which is why he ranks third in NFL history in rushing yards with an even 16,000.

But he also spent a significant part of his career as one of the top backs in the league, going to the Pro Bowl five times.

In fact, he had nine 1,000-yard seasons and had 11 seasons with over 900 rushing yards. The bottom line is that he was a productive back for a long time.

16. Thurman Thomas

Thurman Thomas is far more than just a guy who lost four straight Super Bowls with the Bills. He’s a Hall of Famer who went to five straight Pro Bowls during the prime of his career and also took home MVP honors in 1991 after amassing more than 2,000 all-purpose yards.

Thomas rushed for over 1,000 yards in eight straight seasons at one point, making him one of the best running back of all time despite occasionally being overlooked. 

15. Gale Sayers

In his day, Gale Sayers was as fast and elusive as any running back. If he had played more than seven seasons, he’d be much higher on our list of the best running back of all time.

But in those seven years, Sayers won Rookie of the Year, led the NFL in rushing twice, and was named a First-Team All-Pro on five occasions. He really only played five seasons before knee injuries got the best of him. But when he was healthy, Sayers was the toughest guy in the NFL to tackle.

14. Curtis Martin

Curtis Martin rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his first 10 seasons in the NFL, which sounds simple but is no easy feat.

Oddly enough his 10th season was his best, as he rushed for 1,697 yards to lead the league.

Of course, there’s no question that he was one of the best running backs in the league throughout those 10 years, making the Pro Bowl five times. There is no question that Martin earned his spot in Canton and deserves to be mentioned among the best running backs of all time.

13. O.J. Simpson

Of course, nothing O.J. Simpson did on the field matters that much after what he did off the field. But he is a former MVP who led the NFL in rushing four times in a five-year span.

12. Tony Dorsett

Tony Dorsett is a good example of one of the players on our list of the best running backs of all time who was a little undersized but more than made up for it.

After winning the Heisman, he made an instant impact as a rookie, rushing for over 1,000 yards and winning Rookie of the Year. Dorsett would end up averaging over 1,000 yards per season during his Hall of Fame career.

11. Franco Harris

Franco Harris played in a different era and was more of a fullback than the running backs we see today. During his 13 seasons, Harris went to the Pro Bowl nine times, including the year he led the league in rushing.

Of course, he’s also known for helping the Steelers win four Super Bowls, taking home Super Bowl MVP honors after rushing for 158 yards in Super Bowl IX.

10. Marcus Allen

While there are better running backs, Marcus Allen might be the most accomplished running back in NFL history. During his career, he won Offensive Rookie of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year, MVP, and Super Bowl MVP.

He was also a six-time Pro Bowler who played 16 seasons in the league, racking up over 12,000 rushing yards. He also became the first running back in league history to eclipse 10,000 rushing yards and 5,000 receiving yards in his career.

9. LaDainian Tomlinson

LaDainian Tomlinson entered the league with high expectations and he came close to living up to them. While he was only a five-time Pro Bowler in 11 seasons, he led the NFL in rushing twice and rushing touchdowns three times.

Tomlinson also had an amazing season in 2006 when he took home MVP honors after rushing for 1,815 yards while setting an all-time record with 28 rushing touchdowns. Like many 21st-century running backs, Tomlinson was a dual-threat, which is why he ranked seventh all-time in all-purpose yards at the time of his retirement, as well as second in rushing touchdowns.

8. Earl Campbell

After winning the Heisman and being selected first overall in the 1978 Draft, Earl Campbell only played eight seasons in the NFL.

But he made good use of that time, winning Rookie of the Year in 1978 and winning MVP the following year. Campbell also led the NFL in rushing in three straight seasons early in his career and ended up going to five Pro Bowls.

But six seasons into his career, the punishment he took during games started to take its toll on Campbell. But while he was in the league, it was hard to find a better running back. 

7. Marshall Faulk

In the modern era, Marshall Faulk is one of the few running backs to win MVP honors. He was also Offensive Player of the Year in three straight years while he was a key figure in the “Greatest Show on Turf.”

During those years with the Rams, Faulk was close to unstoppable as both a runner and a pass-catcher. He finished his career with seven Pro Bowl selections and remains the only player in NFL history with over 12,000 career rushing yards and 6,000 receiving yards.

6. Adrian Peterson

Adrian Peterson is without question one of the most physically gifted running backs to ever play the game. He was a man among boys in college and made an immediate impact as a rookie, earning Rookie of the Year honors while rushing for 296 yards in a single game, setting a new NFL record.

He would go on to lead the league in rushing three times, including the 2012 season when Peterson won MVP honors after he came within nine yards of setting the all-time single-season rushing record. While he had some off-field issues, on the field, Peterson was an absolute beast throughout his career.

5. Eric Dickerson

Until he got to the NFL, Eric Dickerson was on another level compared to the players around him. Even as a professional, he often looked like he should be in another league.

At 6’3’’ and 220 pounds, Dickerson on the loose was like trying to stop a freight train. He simply had too much power and speed to handle.

That’s why he led the NFL in rushing four times, including the year he set the record for rushing yards by a rookie and the all-time single-season rushing record with 2,105 yards. It’s hard to imagine him only being fifth on our list, but there were indeed four other running backs who were just a hair better.

4. Emmitt Smith

To date, Emmitt Smith is the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, so there is no question he’s one of the best running backs of all time.

He’s also the all-time leader in rush attempts and rushing touchdowns.

Of course, he played 14 seasons, which is a much longer shelf-life than most NFL running backs. But Smith is also undersized, so the fact that he was able to show such longevity is impressive. He also led the NFL in rushing four times, won MVP honors in 1993, and was a huge part of the Cowboys winning three Super Bowls.

3. Barry Sanders

While undersized, Barry Sanders had as much shake, wiggle, and elegance as any running back to ever play in the NFL. His ability to stop on a dime and change directions might never be matched by any other running back.

Yet, he only decided to play 10 seasons, going to the Pro Bowl in all 10 of those seasons while leading the league in rushing four times.

Sanders also won MVP honors in 1997, his penultimate season. Over his 10 years, Sanders averaged over 1,500 yards per season, and if he had played just one more year and hit that average, he would have retired as the all-time leading rusher.

2. Walter Payton

Walter Payton passed away far too soon, but he was something special, especially during his 13 years in the NFL. He rushed for over 1,000 yards in 10 of those seasons, going to nine Pro Bowls and winning MVP honors in 1977.

Payton wasn’t the biggest running back to ever play the game, but he was strong and knew how to move. He was also far ahead of his time in terms of running backs being used in the passing game. At the time of his retirement, he had racked up over 16,000 yards on the ground and over 4,500 passing yards, which at the time was more than any other non-receiver.

1. Jim Brown

If we’re being honest, Jim Brown is the best player in NFL history and arguably the best pro athlete ever.

The guy was a four-sport star in college and had a memorable, albeit brief NFL career in Cleveland, only playing nine seasons. Brown was just bigger, faster, and stronger than everyone else of his era, which explains why he won three MVP Awards in nine seasons and led the NFL in rushing eight times in those nine years.

He remains the only player to average over 100 rushing yards per game for his entire career. Even in today’s game, someone with Brown’s skill set would be too much to handle. There’s no way that we could put him anywhere but at the top of our list of the best running backs of all time.