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Who Are the Best RB Draft Prospects in NFL History? Barry Sanders, Marshall Faulk Changed the Game

Who are the best RB draft prospects of all time? Barry Sanders and Eric Dickerson are legacy picks, while Bijan Robinson hearkens a new era.

Who are the best running back draft prospects in NFL history? The RB position is one of the most storied roles in all of football. In the past, it was glorified — but even as the game has shifted away from the ground game, the respect for the best runners has not waned.

Top 12 RB Draft Prospects in NFL History

12) Curt Warner, Penn State

In the 20th century, running backs were much more valued than they are now in the modern era. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon that if an RB was viewed as a potentially game-changing player, he was taken within the top three picks.

Of the many standout running backs of the past era, Curt Warner stood out as an especially compelling prospect. He was an extremely efficient collegiate runner whose energetic running style and unique, ahead-of-his-time versatility led Seattle to take him third overall in 1983.

With the Seahawks, Warner would earn Pro Bowl recognition three times, including his best overall season as a rookie in 1983, and he eclipsed 40 catches three times as well — in an era where RBs were often confined to early-down roles.

11) Ricky Williams, Texas

As a prospect, Ricky Williams was so good that one team gave up its entire draft to earn the right to select him.

In 1997 and 1998, Williams was a Heisman candidate for the Texas Longhorns. He won it in 1998 after amassing 2,124 yards and 27 touchdowns on 361 carries.

Though Williams declined to work out at the NFL Combine that year, New Orleans Saints head coach Mike Ditka was smitten by the 5’10”, 226-pound bruising back, and he traded all of his 1999 NFL Draft selections, as well as a first and third-round pick in 2000, to move up and take Williams.

The move turned out to be ill-advised for Ditka, who was fired after a 3-13 season, and Williams would go on to play his best ball elsewhere. William’s best season came with the Miami Dolphins in 2002, when he racked up 1,853 yards and 16 TDs in an All-Pro campaign.

10) Marshall Faulk, San Diego State

You’ll find that many of the best RB prospects of all time were, in fact, ahead of their time as players. That’s undoubtedly the case with Marshall Faulk, though he was able to reach his ceiling in the NFL.

Faulk dominated with 4,589 yards and 57 touchdowns on 766 career carries with the San Diego State Aztecs. In his final season, he caught 47 passes for 644 yards and three scores, outpacing all but one of the team’s receivers.

Faulk was drafted second overall by the Indianapolis Colts in 1994. A smooth and savvy runner at 5’10”, 211 pounds, with all-encompassing role versatility, he won Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Later in his career, Faulk played a hand in changing the game itself as a member of the St. Louis Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf.” From that stretch with the Rams, Faulk became one of just three players in NFL history to amass both 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in a single season. He was a transcendent RB talent and a top-10 RB prospect in NFL history.

9) Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma

Adrian Peterson gave nostalgic NFL coaches a blast of the past with his running style in the 2007 NFL Draft cycle. By this point, the NFL was starting to transition away from ground-and-pound, run-centric attacks — but Peterson single-handedly challenged convention again.

Peterson was a special kind of brawler. He emerged as a freshman at Oklahoma, taking second place in the Heisman race in 2004. Each year for the Sooners, he’d eclipse 1,000 yards and 12 TDs.

Though Peterson was never much of a receiving presence, he could be overwhelming as a ball carrier. The 6’1″, 220-pounder was a force of carnage at the contact point, and that’s if he didn’t break away outright with his elite explosion and 4.4 speed.

A rare modern-era MVP running back and the closest challenger to the record for rushing yards in a season, Peterson easily lived up to his prospect billing in the NFL.

8) Saquon Barkley, Penn State

One of just two contemporary RB prospects on this list, Saquon Barkley broke the mold for what a running back prospect should look like as an athlete.

There’s obviously more to playing the RB position than just athleticism, but being a superlative athletic talent can set you ahead. Barkley proved just that by amassing 5,038 total yards and 51 total TDs in three years at Penn State.

At the 2018 NFL Combine, Barkley put up jarring numbers for his 6’0″, 233-pound frame — among them a 4.4 40-yard dash, 29 bench reps, and a rocket-propelled 41″ vertical jump.

With his size, Barkley had the look and feel of a power back. But on tape, he perplexed evaluators by winning more often with his dancing ability, hyper-elite short-area evasion skills, and his game-breaking speed and burst once he had a runway.

Barkley rode those tools to Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2018.

7) Bijan Robinson, Texas

When a player is special enough, you hear about it early and often. Bijan Robinson had onlookers saying just that as far back as his high school days.

When he joined the Texas Longhorns, Robinson was met with heavy anticipation as a five-star recruit, and he somehow exceeded expectations.

In college, Robinson saved his best ball for last, racking up 1,580 yards and 18 TDs on the ground in 2022, while also catching 19 passes for 314 yards and two scores.

All through the 2023 NFL Draft cycle, evaluators found themselves awestruck by Robinson’s near-perfect blend of explosiveness, agility, flexibility, vision, contact balance, and receiving versatility at 5’11”, 215 pounds.

Robinson’s selection at eighth overall reflected his talent. His first season with the Atlanta Falcons had its flashes; he amassed 1,463 total yards from scrimmage and eight total TDs.

The hope is that with a new coaching staff and improved usage, Robinson can take the next step toward his astronomical ceiling.

6) Reggie Bush, USC

If Reggie Bush had emerged as a prospect in the modern era — where dynamic versatility has become more and more valued — he could’ve been a transformative offensive weapon.

At USC, Bush was the man who could do it all. Though not overly imposing in stature at around 5’11”, 200 pounds, Bush’s unhinged dynamism as a runner, receiver, and return specialist, put defenses in a bind each and every week.

In 2005, Bush was the rightful Heisman winner, with 2,218 total yards and 18 total touchdowns from scrimmage, as well as a punt return TD for good measure. There’s a “what could’ve been” element to Bush’s NFL career, but he went second overall for a reason: He was special.

5) LaDainian Tomlinson, TCU

LaDainian Tomlinson wasted no time etching his name into the annals of NFL history. And the truth is, very few expected anything different than Tomlinson earning a golden jacket when he first came out.

In his final season at TCU, Tomlinson logged 2,158 rushing yards and 22 TDs on 369 carries. Later, at the 2001 NFL Combine, he’d register a 4.46 40-yard dash, a 10’4″ broad jump, a 40.5″ vertical, and a 6.84 three-cone at 5’10”, 221 pounds.

Tomlinson was one of the most complete backs of his generation, but his hyper-elite explosiveness and hyperactive twitch served as foundational building blocks for his game. Those tools were driving forces in him becoming the 2006 NFL MVP.

4) Edgerrin James, Miami (FL)

Around the turn of the century, the Miami Hurricanes boasted an endless line of NFL-caliber talent at RB, with names like Clinton Portis, Frank Gore, and Willis McGahee extending the team’s imprint. But none of them were as talented as 1999 fourth overall pick Edgerrin James.

At around 6’0″, 219 pounds, James ran a blazing 4.38 40-yard dash, and his 3.88 short-shuttle defied logic, while also providing an illustration of his equally potent short-area agility and cutting flexibility.

James was one of the few volume backs who checked every single box — and he doubled as a potent receiving threat as well. He won Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1999 and later embarked on a Hall of Fame-worthy career.

3) Eric Dickerson, SMU

Two Hall of Famers led off the 1983 NFL Draft. The first was John Elway, who was traded from the Baltimore Colts to the Denver Broncos. The second was Eric Dickerson, who landed with the Los Angeles Rams after a trade by the Houston Oilers.

Dickerson — who accumulated 3,045 rushing yards and 36 TDs in his final two seasons at SMU — ran like a gazelle in the open field. A 6’3″, 220-pound speed demon with a rumored 4.4 pace, Dickerson could erase large swaths of ground with only a few steps. And just when defenders got comfortable with the chase, he could use his short-area agility to off-set.

Dickerson was an All-Pro in his first two seasons, and as a second-year player in 1984, he established the record for rushing yards in an NFL season with 2,105 — a record that has yet to be broken to this day.

2) Barry Sanders, Oklahoma State

He might not be the biggest or the most athletic prospect on this list, but Barry Sanders was simply born to play running back. Sanders was the original human joystick, and defenses had no answer for him.

Those jaw-dropping numbers you put up in your last Road to Glory RB campaign? Sanders did that in real life. At Oklahoma State in 1988, he dominated to the tune of 2,628 yards and 37 TDs on 344 carries — averaging almost eight yards per carry.

Despite measuring in at just 5’8″, 203 pounds, Sanders was picked third overall by the Detroit Lions in the 1989 NFL Draft. Whatever few doubters he had, he silenced them quickly by becoming one of the greatest RBs in NFL history.

Sanders only played 10 seasons, and yet, he ranks fourth all-time in career rushing yards. He never once fell below 1,000 yards in a given season, and his ability to send defenders into another dimension eventually earned him Hall of Fame honors.

1) Bo Jackson, Auburn

Bo Jackson is the only running back on this list who can say he was so good, he was drafted twice.

The 6’1″, 227-pound Jackson was a two-sport star — playing at a high level in both football and baseball — and in 1985, he won the Heisman Trophy for the Auburn Tigers, dominating with 1,786 yards and 17 touchdowns on 278 carries.

Rumored to run a laser-timed 40-yard dash as fast as 4.13 seconds, it was a foregone conclusion that Jackson would be the first overall pick in the 1986 NFL Draft. The league had never seen a size-speed specimen like him, and his physicality was the driving nail.

Jackson refused to play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who originally selected him in 1986, and later played for the Los Angeles Raiders when they picked him a year later. A hip injury shortened Jackson’s career, but at his peak, no defender could match up with him.