Top 6 Best NFL Running Backs of All Time

Best NFL Running Backs of All Time

American football has been around since the late 1800s, and ever since, the game has evolved just like its players. Running backs play an important role in football by running the ball and catching passes. Here are the top running backs in the history of the NFL.

Who are the best NFL running backs of all time?

  1. Jim Brown
  2. Walter Payton
  3. Barry Sanders
  4. Adrian Peterson
  5. LaDanian Tomlinson
  6. Emmitt Smith

1. Jim Brown

Jim Brown
  • Rookie of the Year in 1957
  • NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1957, 1958, and 1965
  • 15,459 Net Yards and 12,312 Rushing Yards
  • Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971

Jim Brown was the best NFL running back of all time. Brown was not only a football player in college, but he was also a lacrosse and basketball player. He was an All-American in football and lacrosse while receiving his letterman in basketball during his time at Syracuse University. He was the Cleveland Browns’ number one draft pick in 1957 and was one of the most well-known players that Cleveland has ever had. During his career, he led the NFL in rushing yards for eight of his nine seasons and was in nine consecutive Pro Bowls. He holds several franchise records for the Browns, including most rushing yards, career touchdowns, and 1,000-yard seasons. Jim Brown had such an impact on the Browns that his number 32 was retired by Cleveland, and a statue of him was placed outside of their stadium in 2016.

2. Walter Payton

  • Had 77 100-yard games
  • Rushed for a career total of 16,726 yards
  • NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year in 1977 and 1985
  • Named All-Pro and All-NFC seven times
  • Nine-time Pro Bowler

Peyton was the Chicago Bears’ first-round pick in the 1975 NFL Draft. He missed one game during his rookie season but managed to play for 186 consecutive games afterward. He had many accomplishments during his time in the NFL, including being selected to the Pro Bowl nine times. He won the rushing title for five straight years from 1976 until 1980. In 1977 he led the NFC in points with a total of 96. In 1977, he was named the NFC’s MVP and the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year in 1977 and 1985.

3. Barry Sanders

  • Rushed for a total of 15,269 yards
  • Had a total of 109 touchdowns
  • Heisman Trophy winner in 1988
  • Ten-time Pro Bowler, selected for all 10 seasons he played

Barry Sanders spent ten seasons from 1989 until 1998 playing for the Detroit Lions. During his time with Detroit, he was able to rush for more than 1,000 yards each season and was the first running back ever to achieve this. In 1997, he rushed for 2,053 yards and had 205 yards from 22 catches, giving him a total of 2,358 yards combined that year. His greatness continued to be recognized after his retirement. In 2004, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame. In 2019, he was named to the NFL All-Time as one of the 100 greatest players of all time. Then in 2020, he was ranked number nine on the College Football 150 Greatest Players list.

4. Adrian Peterson

  • Set the NFL single-game rushing record in his rookie season
  • Appeared in four Pro Bowls from 2007 to 2010, in 2012, and 2015
  • In 2012 he won the NFL MVP award and Offensive Player of the Year

Peterson had started his college football career strong at the University of Oklahoma by setting the freshman rushing record, running for 1,925 yards. In 2007, he was drafted as the seventh overall pick in the NFL Draft by the Minnesota Vikings. That year, he won Offensive Rookie of the Year. He set the NFL single-game rushing record of 296 yards and rushed for 1,341 yards that season, with a total of 12 touchdowns. He went on to play for multiple teams around the NFL, most recently for the Seattle Seahawks in 2021.

5. LaDanian Tomlinson

  • Played a total of 170 NFL games
  • Five-time Pro Bowler
  • NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 2006
  • Was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 2000s

LaDanian Tomlinson was one of the greatest running backs of all time, especially the 2000s. He was drafted by the San Diego Chargers fifth overall in the 2001 NFL Draft. In his first four games, he rushed for 412 yards and had six touchdowns. During his rookie season, he rushed for a total of 1,236 yards and had ten touchdowns. In 2006, he was the NFL’s MVP, with rushing for 1,815 yards, 28 rushing touchdowns, and three receiving touchdowns. During his 11 seasons, he rushed for a total of 13,684 yards, 3,174 carries, and had 624 receptions for a total of 4,772 yards.

6. Emmitt Smith

  • Eight-time Pro Bowler
  • Named first-team All-Pro from 1992 to 1995
  • Super Bowl XXVII MVP
  • Named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1990s

Emmitt Smith was arguably the best running back of the 1990s. He was drafted in the first round of the 1990 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys. During his rookie season, he rushed for a total of 937 yards and scored 11 touchdowns. His performance during his rookie season earned him Offensive Rookie of the Year and an invite to the Pro Bowl. During his 13 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys and two seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, he had 515 receptions, 164 rushing touchdowns, and rushed for a total of 18,355 yards. Smith had 11 consecutive seasons with over 1,000 rushing yards.

Honorable Mentions

Gale Sayers

  • 3,956 Rushing yards; 39 rushing touchdowns
  • Four-time Pro Bowler
  • Five-time First-Team All-Pro
  • Two-time league leader in rushing yards
  • 1977 Pro Football Hall of Fame Inductee

Gale Sayers was a dominant running back and return specialist for the Chicago Bears. He only played five seasons, between 1965 and 1971, as his career was cut short by injury. During his brief but dominant career, Sayers became known as one of the toughest running backs to tackle in the league. In his rookie season, he was named NFL Rookie of the year for scoring 22 touchdowns and racking up 2,272 all-purpose yards. His productivity continued, as Sayers went first-team All-Pro five times and was selected to four Pro Bowls during his first five seasons. After sitting out a year for a knee injury, he returned to form in 1969 and was voted the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year. An injury to his opposite knee eventually forced him to retire. In 1977, Sayers was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Bo Jackson

  • 2,782 Career Rushing Yards
  • Heisman Trophy Winner (1985)
  • Selected for 1990 Pro Bowl
  • 1996 Pro Football Hall of Fame Inductee

Vincent Edward “Bo” Jackson was one of the greatest running backs in NFL history, especially the 1980s era. He was drafted as the very first pick of the first round of the 1986 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. For the next five years, Jackson was one of the best running backs that football had ever seen, completing 2,782 career rushing yards and even being selected for the Pro Bowl in 1990. A year later, a hip injury forced Jackson into early retirement but his legendary status was already set. In 1996, Bo Jackson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

FAQ

Who is the greatest NFL running back of all time?

The greatest NFL running back of all time is Jim Brown. He had an unmatched number of awards and accomplishments over his career and dominated the league in ways that no other running back has been able to since. Over his entire career, he averaged 5.2 yards per carry and 9.2 yards per reception. He is the only running back in NFL history to average 100 rushing yards per game. He is also the only player ever to lead the NFL in all-purpose yards for five years.

What NFL running back holds the record for most career rushing yards?

Emmitt Smith holds the record for the most career rushing yards in the NFL. Over his 15 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, he rushed for a total of 18,355 yards. He has over 1,500 more yards than Walter Payton, who holds the number two spot for most career rushing yards.

What NFL running back holds the record for the most career rushing touchdowns?

Emmitt Smith holds the record for the most career rushing touchdowns in the NFL. Over his 15 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, he had 164 career rushing touchdowns. He has 19 more rushing touchdowns than LaDanian Tomilson, who holds the number two spot for most career rushing touchdowns.