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Who Are the Best Running Backs in NFL History? Ranking the Top 10 RBs of All Time

Who are the top running backs in NFL history? We're ranking the top 10 RBs in the league annals, from Gale Sayers to Jim Brown.

Who are the best running backs in NFL history? Given that the position has become devalued in today’s sport, locating the top RBs in league history requires a bit of a deep dive into the record books.

The predominance of passing offense in the NFL over the past 30 years has reduced the role of running backs. RB committees have largely replaced the days of the 300-carry workhorse back.

But that’s where we’ll find most of the top 10 running backs in NFL history.

Top 10 RBs in NFL History

Honorable mentions: Marcus Allen, Jerome Bettis, Tony Dorsett, Frank Gore, Franco Harris, Edgerrin James, Curtis Martin, O.J. Simpson, Thurman Thomas

10) Gale Sayers

Although he would’ve been higher on this list if multiple knee injuries hadn’t ended his career at 28, Gale Sayers was so productive during his brief tenure with the Chicago Bears that he’s earned a spot among the NFL’s best running backs.

Sayers earned first-team All-Pro honors in each of his first five seasons in the league. During that stretch (1965-69), he posted 300+ more yards from scrimmage than any other NFL player and scored the second-most touchdowns (56).

A member of the NFL’s 1960s All-Decade Team, Sayers was also selected for the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. He was the only player on the 75th Anniversary Team to land a slot at multiple positions (halfback and kick returner).

9) Earl Campbell

Earl Campbell, one of seven players to win the Heisman Trophy and an NFL MVP award, burst out of the gate when the Houston Oilers made the University of Texas product the first overall pick in the 1978 NFL Draft.

Campbell led the NFL in rushing yards and won Offensive Player of the Year in each of his first three pro seasons. He claimed the MVP after rushing for 1,697 yards and a league-leading 19 TDs in 1979. In 1980, Campbell became the first and only player to run for 200+ yards in four games in a single season en route to a 1,934-yard campaign.

8) Eric Dickerson

If Campbell held the NFL’s running back championship belt at the end of the 1970s, Eric Dickerson must have picked it upon entering the league with the Los Angeles Rams in 1983.

In 1984, Dickerson rushed for an NFL record 2,105 yards, a mark that hasn’t been touched in the 40+ years since. He earned first-team All-Pro honors in seven of his first eight seasons, grabbed Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1983, and won Offensive Player of the Year in 1986.

Dickerson twice finished second in MVP voting, losing to Washington QB Joe Theismann in 1983 and New York Giants pass rusher Lawrence Taylor in 1986. He was also the quickest running back to reach 10,000 rushing yards, doing so in 91 games.

7) LaDainian Tomlinson

The poster child for fantasy football’s emergence in the mid-2000s, LaDainian Tomlinson racked up touchdowns like no other player in the league during his run with the San Diego Chargers.

Tomlinson, a three-time first-team All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowler, scored the third-most TDs in NFL history (162) and ranks seventh in career rushing yards (13,684).

His most dominant campaign came in 2006 when Tomlinson won the league MVP award after scoring an NFL record 31 touchdowns (28 rushing, three receiving).

His consistency was his trademark. Tomlinson holds the NFL record for most consecutive seasons with 10+ rushing touchdowns (nine), 15+ rushing touchdowns (six), and 1,200+ rushing yards (seven).

6) Adrian Peterson

Adrian Peterson’s inclusion on our list demarcates the end of the NFL’s RB-friendly era. He’s the last running back to win league MVP, doing so after returning from ACL and MCL injuries to post 2,097 rushing yards — nine yards shy of Dickerson’s single-season record — in 2012.

Peterson hit the ground running with the Minnesota Vikings in 2007. Not only did he win Offensive Rookie of the Year, but he set an NFL single-game record by rushing for 296 yards against the San Diego Chargers. Peterson surpassed 1,200 rushing yards in seven seasons, leading the NFL in rushing three times (including in his age-30 campaign).

5) Marshall Faulk

Marshall Faulk could do just about everything.

Over 12 seasons with the Rams and Indianapolis Colts, Faulk became the only player in NFL history to post 12,000 rushing yards and 6,000 receiving yards. He caught more passes (767) than any other RB and ranks 41st in league history in receptions among all pass catchers.

Faulk is one of just three players to register 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. He accomplished that feat in 1999, winning the first of three straight Offensive Player of the Year awards. In 2000, Faulk took home MVP honors after putting up a league-leading 26 total touchdowns for The Greatest Show on Turf.

4) Emmitt Smith

Emmitt Smith owns the NFL record for most career rushing yards (18,355) — and he doesn’t need to worry about losing that mark anytime soon.

Given how running backs have been devalued in today’s game, Smith will probably never face a realistic challenge to his record. Frank Gore wrapped up a 16-year career in 2020 and was still 2,000+ yards behind Smith. The only active RBs among the NFL’s top 40 rushers — Derrick Henry and Ezekiel Elliott — each trail Smith by 8,500+ yards.

The definition of consistency, Smith eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards each season from his age-22 through age-32 campaigns (and only narrowly missed that mark in his age-21 and age-33 seasons). His 175 career touchdowns are second only to Jerry Rice’s 208.

3) Barry Sanders

While ranking third on our list of the NFL’s best running backs of all time is more than respectable, Barry Sanders could’ve been regarded as the league’s greatest RB if he hadn’t retired after the 1998 season.

Sanders hung up his cleats after his age-30 campaign, citing frustration with the Detroit Lions’ lack of results.

Sanders rushed for at least 1,100 yards in all 10 seasons of his career, leading the NFL in rushing four times. He seemingly got better as he aged.

In 1997, Sanders set career highs in rushing yards (2,053) and yards from scrimmage (2,358) while winning MVP and Offensive Player of the Year. He earned Pro Bowl honors in all 10 NFL seasons and was named a first or second-team All-Pro every year (first-team six times).

2) Walter Payton

Walter Payton retired as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher (16,726) and rushing touchdown scorer (110). While those records have since been broken, he still ranks second in rushing yards and fifth in rushing TDs.

“Sweetness” was always available and always productive. Payton played in 198 out of a possible 199 career games and posted at least 100 rushing yards in 77 of those contests.

A five-time first-team All-Pro and nine-time Pro Bowler, Payton won the 1977 MVP award and earned a Super Bowl trophy after the 1985 campaign. One of the greatest NFL players of all time, Payton was arguably a better person, and the league’s Man of the Year Award is named in his honor.

1) Jim Brown

It’s always challenging to compare disparate eras of NFL football. But there’s little doubt that the 6’2″, 232-pound Jim Brown would not only survive but thrive in the 2024 version of the NFL.

Brown led the league in rushing in eight of his nine pro seasons and touchdowns in five of those campaigns. He earned three MVP trophies, eight first-team All-Pro nods, and nine Pro Bowl trips, exuding a level of dominance rarely seen in professional sports.

Brown remains the only player in league history to average more than 100 rushing yards per game. He retired in 1965 as the NFL leader in most rushing categories and is still sixth all-time in rushing touchdowns (106) and 11th in rushing yards (12,312).

Of course, Brown achieved these totals while playing in an era where defenses sold out to stop the run. Plus, the NFL played only 12 games per season over the first four years of Brown’s career before shifting to a 14-game slate in 1961, meaning he didn’t get as many appearances to rack up statistics.

Adjusting for his era, Brown is the best running back in NFL history and one of the top players ever to set foot on the field.