From Barry Sanders To Emmitt Smith, Here Are The Best Running Backs Of All-Time

Running backs are an essential part of every football team. Even if it means risking injury and shortening their playing careers, running backs charge straight into some of the strongest and biggest men on Earth, and they increase their team’s chances of winning. Some of the most nimble people alive have held the position of running back, and the role is key to a successful football team. With the capability of turning nothing into something in the blink of an eye, only a few athletes have captured the attention of a nation like the best running backs in history.

Barry Sanders Was Hindered By Underwhelming Teams

Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Barry Sanders greatness is ever-lasting due to his unique rushing style and his highlight reel rushes. If you’ve never seen him play before, all you need to do is watch one of his clips, and you’ll understand how special this player was.

Sanders averaged five yards per carry and 1,500 yards per season. He had 109 career touchdowns but didn’t score a Super Bowl victory. Thanks to a steady helping of a lackluster supporting cast, Sanders ended up retiring early, but wouldn’t do so before reaching 2,053 yards in a single season at the age of 29. A ten-year career helped him achieve third all-time on the rushing list.

Marshall Faulk Was A Key Component To The Greatest Show On Turf

JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/Getty Images
JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Marshall Faulk put on the Greatest Show on Turf. There’s always something that separates your good running backs from the legendary ones, and Faulk was a merciless playmaker. The all-purpose running back averaged 4.3 yards per carry and had 100 rushing touchdowns over his career.

Even in his “down” years, he racked up stats that many current Pro Bowlers have a difficult time achieving. By the end of his career, he became the number one running back in receiving yards and tenth all-time on the rushing list.

Peterson Is A True Workhorse

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Adrian Peterson is a physical wonder. Time after time he proved that he could withstand a pounding and still provide Hall-of-Fame results. Peterson made the Minnesota Vikings an offensive force no matter who they had at quarterback.

The spectacular thing about Peterson is that he proved his talent even in old age and after significant injuries. A year removed from tearing his ACL, Peterson returned at 27 and ran for 2,097 yards in a season (2,105 is the NFL record). Peterson made the league adjust to his dominance.

A Shortened Career Doesn’t Hide Davis’ Greatness

Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Terrell Davis did so much in such a short period. Had he not retired early, there may have been discussions of Davis being the best back of all-time. Davis came onto a Denver Bronco team and immediately made an impact. He’s one of several running backs to have rushed for at least 2,000 yards in a single-season.

What he did for the Broncos cannot be forgotten. He helped John Elway get over the hump and led them to their first Super Bowl victory. Davis also earned Super Bowl MVP honors while playing through blinding migraines. We’ll call that divine intervention. This next player was practically a human lightning bolt…

Tomlinson Puts The Chargers On His Back

Matt A. Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Matt A. Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Where do we start with LaDainian Tomlinson? Let’s start with the fact that he scored 145 rushing touchdowns while averaging 4.3 yards a carry. When Tomlinson was at his prime, the NFL could do nothing to slow him down. He was the epitome of a dual threat, putting up a 100-catch season and having three seasons in a row with at least 2,172 yards from scrimmage.

The man also threw for seven touchdowns! In 2006, he broke the record of rushing touchdowns in a season with 28. His durability also played a significant role, as he never missed a game due to injury in his first eight seasons.

Erick Dickerson Ushers In A New League

Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images
Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images

In 1978, the NFL changed a few rules and finally made the schedule a 16-game season. The 1983 draft included players that would help mold the new NFL, and one of these players was the beast, Eric Dickerson.

What made Dickerson so special was that even though defenders knew his rushing style and what he was going to do, it was still nearly impossible to stop him. He surpassed 2,100 yards in only his second season, which at the time was a record. Dickerson also averaged 100 yards per game five times. Something only one other player has done…

Brown: The Best Back Ever?

Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Much like Barry Sanders, Jim Brown’s career ended too soon. In his nine seasons, he did enough to arguably become the greatest of all-time. He led the league in rushing for eight of those nine seasons. Brown also racked up 12,312 total career rushing yards, and that placed him ninth all-time.

Brown averaged 104.3 rushing yards per game which makes it utterly painful to argue against his greatest of all-time status. At the time of his retirement, he was the top leading rusher in the sport’s history. That is until this next rusher shattered the record…

All-Time Leading Rusher Emmit Smith

James Smith/Getty Images
James Smith/Getty Images

Emmitt Smith’s talent fused with the sheer dominance of the Cowboys offensive line proved to be the mightiest combination in pro football history. Smith was elusive but also had the power to lower his head and pummel his way through the trenches.

He tallied up 164 career rushing touchdowns and 18,355 rushing yards. In his 13 seasons, Smith failed to reach 1,000 yards rushing four times. The man was special. Yes, he had a longer career than many other greats, but you can’t knock him for that.

Walter Payton The Greatest?

Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

A common belief is that Walter Payton’s greatness isn’t acknowledged as much as others. At the time of his retirement, he was the all-time leading rusher in the NFL. He had 16,726 yards and added 110 rushing touchdowns.

Nicknamed “Sweetness,” Walter took the Bears and his Jheri curl to the promise land and won in 1985. The ’85 Bears crushed the league and Sweetness was amazing to watch on TV. During the ’70s, Payton led the league in rushing every year. He made it look easy during two eras. Not all backs are capable of that.

The Juice

Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Before his troubling history, O.J. Simpson was a prolific talent. First, he dominated at USC, and then he made it difficult for the league as a Buffalo Bill. Earlier we told you Adrian Peterson rushed for 2,097 yards in a 16 game season. Well, Simpson piled up 2,003 in a 14-game season.

Not only did Simpson breathe new life into a failing Bill’s franchise, but he also did it with ease. His 2,003-yard season was the old record, but during that season, he averaged 143.1 yards per game. No one has matched that record yet.

Frank Gore Is A Model Of Consistency

Photo Credit: Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Just because Frank Gore hasn’t retired yet doesn’t meet he’s not one of the greatest running backs to ever play the game. Currently ranked fifth all-time in rushing yards with over 14,000, it’s fair to assume he will finish his career close to 16,000.

What’s really amazing about Gore, though, is that no one ever thought his body would hold up the way it has. Coming out of college, Gore had a series of knee injuries that should have ended his career. The 49ers took a chance on him and he paid them back with a Super Bowl push in 2012.

Curtis Martin Was The Original Frank Gore

Photo Credit: Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Curtis Martin was an easy selection as a first ballot Hall of Famer after he retired, Starting his career with the New England Patriots, few running backs have been as consistent season to season. His best years didn’t come with the Patriots though, they came with the Jets.

Martin’s best season came in his second to last in the league. He rushed for over 1,600 yards and scored 12 touchdowns. By the time he retired, he was ranked 4th all-time in total rushing yards.

There’s A Reason Jerome Bettis Was Nicknamed “The Bus”

62493010-97114-31569.jpg
Rob Tringali/SportsChrome/Getty Images
Rob Tringali/SportsChrome/Getty Images

Jerome Bettis was a tank of a running back when he played in the NFL. Oversized and considered slow for the position, all Bettis ever did was prove his doubters wrong. Built more like a fullback, Bettis has the foot quickness, agility, and pass catching skills that gave him the advantage he needed as a running back.

It didn’t hurt that defenders would get out of the way when they saw him charging. By the end of his career, Bettis wasn’t racking up yards, but he was still bruising defensive lines on the goal line to score touchdowns.

Marcus Allen Was A Game Changer

Photo Credit: Owen Shaw/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Owen Shaw/Getty Images

Marcus Allen was drafted by the Raiders and might be the only payer Al Davis ever drafted he didn’t like. Davis tried his best to bury Allen in the lineup, but when the Raiders need to score late, whoever the head coach was, had no choice but to put Allen in the game.

Eventually, Allen became a Kansas City Chief, and once there, he was finally free to set rushing records, When he retired, he ranked 13 on the all-time rushing list, but if Davis had allowed him to play more he might have finished in the top five!

Edgerrin James Game Was Underrated

20051113_mar_ts1_003-29566-97881.jpg
Jay Drowns/Sporting News via Getty Images
Jay Drowns/Sporting News via Getty Images

Edgerrin James was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts of the first round of the draft and went on to have a prolific career. Oddly enough, he seems to have become one of the games forgotten greats. Maybe he was overshadowed by Peyton Manning.

Whatever the case, the stats show that James rushed for over 10,000 in his career and scored 80 touchdowns. His stats would have been higher if injuries hadn’t marred the last two season he played. But you can’t guess what groud and pounder is next?

Steven Jackson Was The Heart And Soul Of His Teams

Photo Credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Steven Jackson was never the flashiest running back, What he was reliable. If you needed a running back that would never lose yards, Jackson would be at the top of your list. You don’t finish a career with over 10,000 yards by being bullied backward!

Jackson’s best season came as a St. Louis Ram in 2006. He rushed for 1,500 yards and scored 13 touchdowns. He also caught 90 passes for 806 receiving yards and three more touchdowns. Pretty incredible for a running back who barely average four yards a carry for his career.

Corey Dillon The Record For Rushing Yards In A Game

12045300-39135-49740.jpg
Joe Murphy/NFLPhotoLibrary
Joe Murphy/NFLPhotoLibrary

Corey Dillon was inconsistent throughout his NFL career, but when he was good he was one of the best. Not even injuries could stop him from the setting the single-game rushing record in 2000. On that Autumn day, Dillon rushed for 278 yards in one game, taking down Walter Payton’s 275-yard record.

As happens with records, Dillon’s monstrous feat didn’t stand the test of time. Jamal Lewis topped him in 2003 with 295 yards. Four years later, Adrian Peterson blew up for 296 yards in a game, proving the NFL hasn’t always been a passing league.

Fred Taylor Helped Makes Jacksonville A Football City

11585305-62742-75462.jpg
Robert Skeoch/NFLPhotoLibrary
Robert Skeoch/NFLPhotoLibrary

For the most part, the state of Florida is considered college football country. Despite having three NFL teams, sports fans tend to flock to the college game instead of the pros. That was definitely the case in Jacksonville until Fred Taylor came along.

Another running back who was never flashy, but always reliable, Fred Taylor was a part of a Jaguars teams that led an NFL revolution in the city. Playing with Mark Brunell, the Jaguars threatened to make the Super Bowl as a sophomore team. Today the team is still a contender, the only difference is the name of the running back.

Franco Harris Is A Blast From The Past

2014-02-01_159076112th12796-36241-18064.jpg
Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Franco Harris played in the NFL from 1972 until 1984. He spent every year he played with the Steelers except for his final one. His run with Pittsburgh is still remembered as one of the greatest of all-time.

From 1972 to 1980, Harris helped the Steelers claim four Super Bowl titles (you’re welcome Terry Bradshaw), and was elected to nine Pro-Bowls. He hung up his pads with over 12,000 career rushing yards and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990. Next up, a running back who did it all with the Titans!

The Only Thing Eddie George Never Did Was Win A Super Bowl

Photo Credit: JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images
Photo Credit: JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images

Eddie George was a star for the Tennessee Titans during the teams playoffs days. Led by head coach Jeff Fisher and quarterback Steve McNair, George lived a pretty good life gaining yards in January every year.

Of course, George was no slouch with the ball. In nine seasons in the league, George was a machine, gaining over 1,000 yards on the ground seven times. In 2000 he reached peak form, gaining over 1,500 yards and scoring 14 touchdowns. Don’t worry, you didn’t read that wrong.

Earl Campbell’s Career Was Short And Sweet

earl campbell
Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Earl Campbell has his rookie season for the Houston Oilers in 1978. He rushed for 1,450 yards and scored 13 touchdowns. Two seasons later he nearly made history, piling up 1,934 yards while averaging 5.2 yards per carry.

Just a few short years later, injuries started to affect the Hall of Fame running back. From 1981 through 1985 he only started a full 16 game season once. In his final year, he did suit up for 16 games, but failed to start four of them and barely averaged four yards per carry.

Thurman Thomas Gave OJ A Run For His Money

Photo Credit: Rick Stewart/Allsport/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Rick Stewart/Allsport/Getty Images

OJ Simpson isn’t the only all-time great running back the Buffalo Bills have ever had. Thurman Thomas ran behind the line of scrimmage for the team from 1988 until 1999. During his time he collected over 12,000 career yards and ran for 1,000 yards eight times!

During his prestigious 13 year career, he also caught for almost 5,000 yards, putting him in rareified air. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007, and the College Football Hall of Fame a year later.

John Riggins Played Until His Body Quit On Him

159076112th56521-31466-57623.jpg
Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

John Riggins was a special player. He played in the NFL for 15 seasons and collected over 11,000 career rushing yards. He ran for 1,000 yards five times and collected over career touchdowns.

And for the longest time, Riggins held a record everyone thought was untouchable. In 1983, he ran for an NFL record 24 touchdowns. No one at the time thought anyone could rush for more than 20. In 1995, Emmit Smith bested Riggins by one touchdown and in 2006 LaDainian Tomlinson blew everyone away with 28!

Marshawn Lynch Caused An Earthquake

Photo Credit: Steve Dykes/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Steve Dykes/Getty Images

The headline isn’t a lie. When the Seahawks made the playoffs with a 7-9 record and played the defending Super Bowl Champion Saints in the first round, no one expected them to win. At the end of the game, Marshawn Lynch bulldozed New Orleans and rumbled his way into the end zone to win the game.

The hometown Seattle crowd was so loud they cause a real earthquake. And just think, that was only Marshawn Lynch’s coming out party, For the next half decade he defined football in Seattle, winning a Super Bowl for the city once.

Jamal Lewis Is A Member Of The 2,000 Yard Club

11344915-73816-35157.jpg
Joe Murphy/NFLPhotoLibrary
Joe Murphy/NFLPhotoLibrary

Jamal Lewis ran for over 10,000 yards in his career, and you can bet part of the reason is from when he made history. In his fourth season in the NFL, Lewis did the unthinkable and ran for more than 2,000 yards. By accomplishing the feat he joined a club with less than five members.

Lewis pulled another amazing trick out of his bag in 2006 when he helped the Browns make the playoffs. Considered a perennial loser, no one expected the Browns to be competitive, let alone finish the season 10-6 and make the playoffs!

Warrick Done Was The Buccaneer That Never Quit

Photo Credit: Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Considered small for a running back, Warrick Dunn was supposed to be a pass catching back with limited between the tackle abilities. Instead, he became the best running back in Tampa Bay history, gaining over 10,000 yards for his career and scoring 49 touchdowns.

After his productive run with the Bucs, he signed with the Falcons, where he was a 1,000-yard machine and pass catching terror. He finished his career in 2008 with Tampa Bay, ending his amazing run back where it all began.

Tiki Barber Redefined The Giants’ Backfield

Photo Credit: Brian Killian/NFLPhotoLibrary via Getty Images
Photo Credit: Brian Killian/NFLPhotoLibrary via Getty Images

Tiki Barber played for the New York Giants from 1997 until 2006. It was the only team in his NFL career he ever played for. He ran for 1,000 yards six times, including 1,600 yards in his last season. Sadly, the year after he retired the New York won the Super Bowl, something that was always out of reach while he was there.

It’s still surprising to us that Barber retired at the peak of his career. You know what he did his last year, but did you know the year before he ran for 1,800 yards? From 2002 until he retired, in fact, he never ran for less than 1,200 yards.

Thomas Jones Had Five Surreal Seasons

Photo Credit: Al Pereira/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Al Pereira/Getty Images

From 2005 until 2009, few running backs in the NFL were as productive as Thomas Jones. In 2009 alone he ran for 1,400 yards and scored 14 touchdowns while playing for the New York Jets.

Sadly for Jones, those five seasons were the best he would have. The seven other years he was in the league showed how tough he was, but also showed he needed a great offensive line to ascend to new heights. Jones retired after the 2011 season with over 10,000 career yards.

LeSean McCoy Deserves More Respect

dfh1801077510bills_vs_jaguars-15270-70916.jpg
David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

LeSean McCoy has been one of the most versatile running back in the NFL since entering the league a decade ago. As an Eagle in 2013, he collected over 2,100 yards from scrimmage; 1,600 by ground and 500 by air. He scored a total of 11 touchdowns that year.

After rushing for 1,300 yards in 2013, the Eagles let McCoy walk in free agency, where he joined the Bills and has made it his mission to prove they made a mistake. So far his mission is accomplished with two straight 1,000 yard seasons.

Ricky Williams Was Troubled But Great

Photo Credit: Joel Auerbach/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Ricky Williams played on and off in the NFL and still rushed for over 10,000 career yards. Drafted by the Saints in 1999, Williams “retired” a few years later to pursue a passion in studying marijuana. Two years before retiring he joined Miami and rushed for 1,800 yards.

His retirement lasted one season but when he returned to Miami that year he wasn’t the same player. By the time he retired in 2011, he only ran for 1,000 yards one more time. The bottom line is everyone knows Williams was good, but we’ll always wonder how great he could have been.

Ottis Anderson The Touchdown Machine

Ottis Anderson
Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images
Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

Ottis Anderson spent his career on two teams and he was equally effective for both. He started out as a St. Louis Cardinal where most of his production came between 1979-1984. He won Offensive Rookie of the Year and made it to the Pro Bowl his first two seasons.

Then, when he landed with the Giants, he was a touchdown machine. He scored a combined 25 touchdowns in 1989 and 1990. Overall, Anderson ranks 28th in rushing nad 18th in rushing touchdowns.

Lenny Can Do More

lenny moore
Robert Riger/Getty Images
Robert Riger/Getty Images

Over 12 seasons, Lenny Moore was everything the Baltimore Colts could have asked for. He was a force on offense, becoming an All-Pro five times. He only had three seasons with more than 100 rush attempts, but he made the most of each attempt averaging at least seven yards per carry three times.

In 1964, Moore scored 16 touchdowns which would equate to at least one touchdown per game in today’s league. His career ended in 1967, but Moore ranks 76th all-time in yards from scrimmage.

Ring The Bell, Le’Veon

GettyImages-625645936
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Le’Veon Bell might be early in his career, but that doesn’t disqualify him from this list. If you were to put him in the game two decades ago, he would still be a force to be reckoned with.

He’s already nabbed three Pro Bowl selections and is a two-time All-Pro as well. He’s already amassed 8,000 yards from scrimmage for his career already and he’s just getting started. For being so young, Bell has a great chance at climbing the ranks.

forte
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

What can we say about Matt Forte? Well, we can say that he for sure deserves to be on this list for one thing. He was highly productive for ten seasons combined with the Bears and the Jets.

He did most of his damage with the Bears, however and finished his career with 14,468 yards from scrimmage. That’s enough to put him 28th all-time. He gained 1,000 yards five times in his career and made the Pro-Bowl twice.

Jim Taylor The Elite

jim taylor
James Flores/Getty Images
James Flores/Getty Images

The Green Bay Packers have had some serious luck with great players in their franchises history. The names go on and on, but you can’t leave out is Jim Taylor. Taylor was elite at his best.

He managed to get five consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons which is incredible. He is also a four-time NFL champion. Taylor led the NFL in rushing and rushing touchdowns during the 1962 season and grabbed the MVP while he was at it.

Remember Larry Csonka

larry csonka
Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Add an undefeated season and two Super Bowl rings to the resume of Larry Csonka. He was a crucial piece of the undefeated 1972 Dolphins team. The running back helps control tempo and he was a master at that.

Csonka rushed for more than 1,000 yards for three consecutive seasons (1971-1973). He also made it to five Pro Bowls in a row too. His last achievement was when he won Comeback Player of the Year during his final year.

His Name Is Gale

gale
Contributor/Getty Images
Contributor/Getty Images

Gale Sayers may have only played for seven seasons but he made a huge impact during those years. Not only was he a running back, but he did his dirt a returner as well as was important in both roles.

For a five-year span, Sayers was one of the most dominate players from 1965-1969. He was an All-Pro through each of those seasons and that doesn’t come as a surprise at all. He ended his career averaging five yards per carry which is good for eighth best.

Tough Shoes To Fill

leroy kelly
Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Leroy Kelly had the pleasures of following in the footsteps of Jim Brown over in Cleveland. He didn’t do such a bad job either. Kelly had six consecutive Pro Bowl appearances after Brown retired in 1965.

Kelly would lead the league in rushing two times and he also ran for more than 1,100 yards three times. To top off his great career, Kelly rushed for 42 touchdowns in a three-year span. Call it what you want, but we choose to label it greatness.

Ricky Watters

Ricky Watters
George Gojkovich/Getty Images
George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Ricky Watters might not be in the Hall of Fame, but one could make the argument that he deserves to be there. After a great ten-year stint in San Francisco, Seattle, and Philadelphia, he can stack up with the best.

Watters rushed for more than 10,000 yards and had seven seasons with 1,000+ yards as well. You couldn’t leave him uncovered in the backfield either, as he had 467 receptions throughout his career. He also is a five-time Pro Bowler.

Chris Johnson Was Fast

chris johnson
Rick Stewart/Getty Images
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

During his second season when players generally succumb to the sophomore slump, Chris Johnson hurdled the slump and rushed for 2,006 yards. Many of the best took a while to break the 2,000 yard barrier.

Johnson made the Pro Bowl in his first three seasons and had six-straight seasons with 1,000-yards rushing. After his stint with the Titans, he went over to the Jets. He finished his career with more than 9,600 yards rushing which is good for 35th all-time.