Top 11 running backs of all time from Barry Sanders to O.J. Simpson

When ranking the best running backs of all time, it was important for the PFN staff to come together and have a calm conversation about the candidates. Well, that’s not quite what happened. But just like our all-time quarterback rankings, we weighed talent above all else. The top running backs in NFL history range from elite players with shorter careers to stat compilers who remained healthy and willing enough to play forever.

For the sake of consistency, we elected to keep this conversation strictly in the Super Bowl era. Not!

Don’t get used to us going rogue and breaking the rules often. However, we couldn’t leave quite possibly one of the top running backs in NFL history off the list. So, it is sort of a Super Bowl era list, just with an exception to keep the mob from donning their torches and pitchforks.

Go ahead, call me a coward. I can take it.

The best running backs of all time | 6-11

The cluster of running backs from 6-11 are some of the best of all time. In fact, they each have their own unique top-five case. One of them was fought for tooth and nail by our Chief Written Content Officer Ryan Gosling (not that one) to be in the top three. So we had a knock-down, drag-out fight over the top running backs in NFL history.

11) O.J. Simpson

There was a lot of great banter about the last few spots on the list of the best running backs of all time. Off-field troubles didn’t weigh into our decision-making process here. O.J. Simpson appears to have found peace now in his 70s, posting awkward Twitter videos from some exclusive country club somewhere.

On the Top-100: NFL’s Greatest Players from NFL Films, Chuck Klosterman elegantly articulated that Simpson’s legacy as a football player is destroyed. That might be. He ranked 40th on their all-time-players list back in 2010, and he’s at the bottom of our list here for the running back position in 2021.

Simpson’s 1973 MVP season was outrageous. He averaged 143.1 yards per game and 6.0 yards per carry that year. He also rushed for a record 2,003 yards that season in 14 games, breaking Jim Brown’s record. The 143.1 yards per game is an NFL record…by 10 whole yards.

In his Thanksgiving Day 273-yard single-game rushing record (since broken), his quarterback went 4-for-21 passing for a whopping 29 yards. Simpson, meanwhile, reached his 273-yard milestone on 29 carries. Simpson’s teams missed the playoffs in 10 of his 11 seasons.

10) Edgerrin James

Maybe it’s because he played with one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, but Edgerrin James is somehow underrated as one of the best running backs of all time. It took a minute to discuss who would battle for the last few spots before we brought up James’ name. However, the decision happened swiftly once we did.

He started the ridiculous running back revolution at the University of Miami. Following his career, the Hurricanes recruited Najeh Davenport, Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee, and Frank Gore. All of those guys played on the same 2001 Hurricanes team.

As a running back, James blended power and grace as well as anybody. Moreover, he had the added pressure of two outside factors. The Indianapolis Colts had just traded away Marshall Faulk, and they drafted James ahead of Ricky Williams, who some thought was a mistake at the time.

James went on to lead the league in rushing his first two seasons, and he neared 600 receiving yards in each as well. He tallied four 1,500-yard rushing seasons and had three 2,000 all-purpose-yard seasons. He made violent, wide cuts a 220-pound back shouldn’t be able to make. Furthermore, James ran faster than a man his size should. His 4.38 40-yard dash showed itself on Sundays throughout his Hall of Fame career.

9) Curtis Martin

Curtis Martin was a beaming light of consistency throughout his 11-year career, but that does not mean he was a compiler. No, Martin could absolutely ball. He began his career with 10 straight 1,000-yard seasons. In each of those seasons, he also caught 30 passes.

Martin is one of the best running backs of all time because he blended good ability with outstanding durability and versatility. James is the more physically gifted player. However, his footwork and explosiveness in tight spaces allowed him to slip would-be tacklers with consistency. Additionally, his longevity could be attributed to the fact he knew how to slip and slice through hard tackle attempts instead of getting hit squarely.

Martin possessed a powerful lower half that allowed him to drive wrapped-up tacklers across the first-down marker and the goal line. He also displayed outstanding vision on the first level and the ability to manipulate second-level defenders with his eyes. When he was free to operate against linebackers, he often got them moving in the wrong direction before shaking them with a shimmy.

In the end, it’s easy to see why this Hall of Fame runner is one of the top running backs in NFL history.

8) Eric Dickerson

As previously mentioned, any of the top eight backs on this list have their own unique argument as to why they should be in the top five. Dickerson’s first seven NFL seasons are up there with anybody else.

The way Dickerson moved doesn’t make sense to this day. He ran with the grace of a modern NFL back, maximizing his physical traits. He slid by defenders laterally and stopped his legs on a dime to change direction. And he did all that as a towering 6-foot-3, 220-pound back.

It doesn’t make sense.

Aside from having a Hall of Fame career, Dickerson had a Hall of Fame aesthetic as well. If we had factored that in, he’d be a shoo-in for a top-five spot on the list. Notwithstanding, there was no better look than that Rams No. 29 with the Rec Specs. It’s an undefeated look.

But back to the football. Dickerson is hurt by his late-career performance. Nevertheless, his five seasons with the Rams were otherworldly. In those five seasons (he was traded during Year 5), he averaged 111.5 yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry. He still, to this day, holds the single-season rushing record with 2,105 yards in 1983.

7) Marshall Faulk

If Roger Craig changed the way we look at the position, Faulk cemented that philosophical change. While evaluating college running backs heading into the pros, receiving ability weighs heavily on the evaluation.

Faulk is the mold of an NFL running back in the way I personally view it. He’s a bit taller than 5-foot-10 and a bit over 210 pounds. That’s a nice, compact frame to maximize efficiency in the footwork and long speed in the open field.

Faulk’s peripheral vision was absolutely absurd. His balance was unbelievable. He wasn’t a bruising back, but defenders struggled to tackle him because he ran like Greased-Up Deaf Guy from Family Guy. His creativity and vision allowed for spectacular highlight runs in the second and third level of defenses. As a result, Faulk was the transmission of the “Greatest Show on Turf.”

Faulk had a four-season stretch gaining 2,000 all-purpose yards in each. In 1999, he rushed for 1,381 yards and averaged 5.5 yards per carry (which led the league). He also had 1,048 yards receiving that season, averaging a staggering 12 yards per catch. And he did all of this with one of the most unassuming NFL bodies ever. Faulk didn’t look like an NFL player until he put the pads on.

6) Emmitt Smith

I love Emmitt Smith — he is one of the best running backs of all time. He’s also the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. Smith was the engine of the 1990s Cowboys’ Super Bowl runs.

He’s great in interviews and a delight to speak with in person. Brad Sham’s “move over sweetness, make a place for Emmitt” is one of the greatest calls in NFL history. His longevity and consistency matter.

However, one thing that isn’t talked about enough with Smith is just how prolific he was scoring touchdowns. Smith scored a whopping 96 touchdowns on the ground in his first six NFL seasons. Dallas’ offensive line was an absolute unit, but Smith’s steady vision helped maximize their efforts.

If it needs to be made more clear, Smith was an outstanding running back. One does not accumulate such gaudy statistics without being so. He had good power, outstanding vision, and more than enough wiggle to make defenders miss. But it was his balance and flexibility that made Smith so special. He contorted his body in ways to remain on his feet against all odds.

Smith had 11 straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons. His rushing record will probably never be broken, given the way the NFL has shifted away from the run game. The Hall of Famer is one of the top running backs in NFL history, but he narrowly misses our top five.