Who is the best NFL running back of all time?
Although it wasn’t an easy task to limit the list of the greatest running backs the league has seen throughout the 100 years of its existence to 20, still, we were able to come up with the top-20 best NFL running backs of all-time.
Our list was derived based on player accomplishments and individual ingenuity, including opinions from SportyTell editors and various pundits in the sport. So, here’s our best shot right now.
The Best NFL Running Backs of All-Time
20. Terrell Davis
In just four seasons, Davis spent in the NFL, he achieved feats, several who have played for about a decade haven’t. The Denver Broncos Running back who retired in the 2002 preseason had an incredible four-season NFL career. Following his debut in the league in 1995, Davies went on to win successive Super Bowl titles at the Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII. At the Super Bowl XXXII, Davies’ performance earned him the prestigious MVP award, making him one of three Broncos’ players to achieve the feat. As at 2018, about 16 years after his retirement, he still holds as much as 46 unbroken records in the Broncos franchise.
19. Thurman Thomas
In the 1990s, Thurman was a name widely recognized by any Buffalo Bills fan. Thurman was in exceptional form for the franchise as they mounted a tough offensive campaign which saw his side win four American Football Conference titles. Thurman also made it to the Super Bowl on four occasions. From Super Bowl XXV to Super Bowl XXVIII, Thurman played in all, but his magic wasn’t sufficient to help the Bills win the title. The closet he came to a Super Bowl MVP title was at the Super Bowl XXV, where his performance was hailed as better than the MVP recipient. Thurman is also the only player in NFL history to top the yards from scrimmage in four successive seasons.
18. Curtis Martin
With no Super Bowl title to his name, Curtis Martin still managed to put an impressive performance for a running back in the 11 seasons he spent in the league, worthy of going into the books as one of the best NFL running backs in history. Martin came into the league, announcing his arrival with an NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year win, and throughout his stint in the NFL, he showed he truly is the king of offense. In his 11 seasons in the league, he failed to meet up with his elevated standard of 1000 rushing yard just once. When he called it quits on football in 2006, he was the fourth player with the most rushing yards.
17. Jerome Bettis
Few players end their career with a much needed Super Bowl win, but Bettis did just that. The 1993 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, who gracefully and tactfully brought his top performance into the running back position ranks as the 8th leader in the NFL All-time rushing list. After giving into persuasion by Ben Roethlisberger, the man dubbed, ‘The Bus’ extended his stint in the league by just a season and in his home city, he lifted the Super Bowl trophy while announcing his retirement from the sports.
16. Adrian Peterson
As a rookie playing for the Minnesota Vikings in 2007, Peterson declared his presence in the league in a game against the San Diego Chargers, where he rushed 296 yards, setting a new NFL single-game rushing yard record. That season he earned the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, and since then he has been on an impressive run in the league. Three times he has led the league rushing yards. In the 2012 season, he not only emerged as the league’s rushing yard leader but also as the league’s MVP Offensive Player of the Year. With a couple of years ahead of him, Peterson still can rise high up the NFL rushing leaders list.
15. Marshall Faulk
Right from his first season in the league, Faulk had already pointed out to anyone paying close attention, that he was going to be a sensation in the league. He became the first rookie in the league to win the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award, as well as the Pro Football MVP. After series of attempts to win the Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts fell through, he switched to the St. Louis Rams in 1999, and in just one season, his wish came true at the Super Bowl XXVIII. His performance in his first season with the Fans earned him his infamous moniker “The Greatest Show on Turf”. He holds the record for being the first running back to top his franchise in receptions, in five seasons.
14. Steve Van Buren
Prior to the days, where Americans began taking a tremendous interest in football, Steve Van Buren had trodden a path several running backs will trail in the years to come. The epic running back dubbed ‘Supersonic Steve’ won two NFL Championship. In the eight seasons, he spent as an NFL running back, Steve topped the NFL rushing list, four times and became the first player to record more than 1000 rushing yards, in several seasons. He also topped the NFL rushing touchdown list on four occasions. Van Buren obviously carved out a reputation for himself as one of the best NFL running backs.
13. Marion Motley
Another star from the early years of the NFL, Motley who is one of the early African Americans to take up the sport, created a unique style on the pitch. The late NFL running back had a reputation for his diverse adoption of tactics which produced significant results in passing as well as excellent blocking. Motley won the NFL Championship with the Cleveland Browns in 1950 and also emerged as the rushing leader in the league that season.
12. Lenny Moore
Now struggling with the pangs of old age, Moore was once athletic and formidable and unarguably one of the best running backs whom the Baltimore Colts will not forget in a hurry. Right from his first season in the NFL, Moore’s running and receiving ability made him the 1956 NFL Rookie of the Year winner. In the subsequent years he spent as a Colts player, Moore achieved significant records for a running back which includes an unofficial record of registering touchdowns in 18 successive appearances.
11. Dutch Clark
Still from an era where the NFL was not a widely known league, Dutch Clark dubbed the “Flying Dutchman” had one of the best careers for a running back in the early years of the NFL. Clark won the 1935 NFL Championship and was named rushing touchdown leader on three occasions. When he retired in 1937, Clark had the most career score for an NFL player.
10. Emmitt Smith
Undoubtedly one of the greatest running backs the league have ever seen, Smith’s performance in the NFL is one which continues to accumulate praises from pundits even long after his retirement. The retired NFL star is mostly known for his time with the Dallas Cowboys where he went on to win three Super Bowl titles. In all the seasons he won the Super Bowl, Smith led the league in rushing yards. The four-time rushing yard and rushing touchdown winner holds the record for most rushing yards in the league with 18,355 rushing yards.
9. O. J. Simpson
A controversial fellow he is, but on the pitch, he remains one of the best NFL running backs ever seen. Simpson had the best times of his career with the Buffalo Bills where he achieved several feats. Though he never won the Super Bowl, Simpson emerged as the leagues rushing yard leader four times and rushing touchdown leader, twice. He is the first NFL player to record 2,000 rushing yards in a season.
8. Tony Dorsett
In his rookie season, Dorsett set the groundwork for a very impressive career for a running back. As a rookie with no prior experience against the far more experienced NFL heavyweights, Dorsett recorded 1000 rushing yards, the only Cowboy to have done that. He was awarded the Offensive Rookie of the year. He began his career in the league in winning styles, by claiming the Super Bowl XII in his first season.
7. Earl Campbell
The former Houston Oilers star is widely known for his running style that it was said, that whoever hits him while on his wide runs, lowers his IQ. The man indeed tailored his game around his unique running style and it earned him significant results, thus stamping his name among the list of the best running backs in the history of the NFL. The 1978 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, led the league in rushing yards three times and rushing touchdowns twice.
6. Barry Sanders
If talents were the prerequisites for making it to the Super Bowl, Sanders would be a strong candidate. The retired NFL running back graded his position with such talents that even critics affirm that he’s one of the best running backs of all-time in the NFL. The two times Offensive Player of the Year led the NFL in rushing yards on four different occasions.
5. LaDainian Tomlinson
Throughout his stint in the NFL, Tomlinson remained a powerful running back for the San Diego Chargers, where he spent most of his career. His impressive antics in the league saw him earn several accomplishments and records such as his two-time rushing yard and three-time rushing touchdown leads. He also matched Lenny Moore’s unofficial record of 18 successive games in a touchdown.
4. Eric Dickerson
Armed with his shortsighted googles, Dickerson was too fast and skilful for several defenders. The retired NFL star had one of the best careers for a running back in the NFL. Over the course of his career, Dickerson led the NFL in rushing yards four times and earned the league Offensive Player of the Year award once. In one season, the 1984 season, Dickerson set the record for most single-season rushing yard with 2,105 rushing yards.
3. Gale Sayers
If not for the pains of injuries, Sayers will have had more pages dedicated to his career in the history books of the NFL. He is evidently one of the best NFL running backs of all-time. Of the seven seasons, he spent in the league, Sayers who didn’t win the Super Bowl record as much as 4,956 rushing yards. He received the award for leading the league in rushing yards on two occasions.
2. Walter Payton
Late Payton had one of the best careers in the NFL which few players in the league have matched. The star who was known for his versatile style of play and maneuvers which confused defenders made up for the lightening speed he lacked. The 1977 season was particularly memorable for him as he claimed NFL MVP and Man of the Year awards and also led the league in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. Walter Payton will be remembered as one of the all-time greatest running backs in the NFL.
1. Jim Brown
No one in the history of the NFL, have solidly manned the running back position as much as Jim Brown. From his antics, blocks to passings, Brown was phenomenal. His spectacular performance earned him the 1957 NFL Rookie of the Year award and also made him lead the league in rushing yards 8 times and 5 rushing touchdowns. Jim Brown is lauded as the best running back of all time and one of the topmost contender for the title of the greatest NFL player ever.
As every NFL player seeks to leave a mark in the sport before their retirement, many have gone on to improve their abilities to ensure they become the best in the league. But the best in the NFL usually have a lot to do with a player’s position on the pitch.
While the American football quarterback position may seem more intriguing than the running back, no NFL team can afford to have just an average player covering any position. As a result of the significance of placing the best in each position, NFL pundits can’t help but access who truly is the best in each position.
The Running back position is especially of great importance to each NFL team. Tasked with holding firmly to the ball during a running play and effectively mounting strategic blocks, a running back, whether a halfback or tailback, is known to possess real agility, speed as well as effective passing skills.
What are your thoughts on our top-20 best NFL running backs of all-time? Please share it with us in the comments section below.
Stats via Pro Football Reference
Emmitt Smith 10th?