Top 12 RB Draft Prospects of All Time: Does Bijan Robinson Make the List?

Through decades of NFL history, who are the top RB draft prospects of all time? Does Bijan Robinson hold a place among Hall of Famers with his talent?

There’s no denying the devaluation of the RB position in modern football. However, that doesn’t change what makes a running back great. NFL teams may not be looking to pay a premium for a top RB, but they are still looking for fast, explosive, and dynamic players at the position.

Let’s go back through history and examine the best RB prospects of all time. As a caveat, just because a player may have flopped in the NFL does not retroactively make him a poor NFL Draft prospect.

The Best RB Prospects of All Time

When it comes to evaluating football, or really any sport, there’s not much in the way of objectivity. After the fact, we can make objective claims about whether a player was good. But ahead of time, prospect evaluation is a very subjective exercise.

There are so many factors to consider, and everyone’s perspective is different. But reverse engineering it all to the foundational level — what a prospect can do — these are some of the most impressive RB prospects over the years.

There’s a common thread you’ll find with most of these RB prospects. Their draft capital reflected their talent in the eyes of NFL teams, and many achieved the production they sought at the professional level to reaffirm their standing.

Every player on this list was highly drafted. While the greatest RBs of all time are not exclusively first-round picks, the top prospects are.

*Note: Given the nature of prospect evaluation, it is difficult to say exactly how good the perception of a player was the farther back into history we go. As a result, all players on this list were drafted after 1980.

12) Curt Warner, Penn State

This writer is taking this one on the belief and advisement of others. I was not alive during the 1983 NFL Draft and never got to see Curt Warner play. From what I hear, though, Warner was a highly sought-after prospect in an era where teams were built around elite running backs.

The 1983 NFL Draft was historic because of for more than one reason. Everyone remembers the vaunted QB trio of John Elway, Jim Kelly, and Dan Marino — and rightly so — but the 1983 class also laid claim to two of the best running back prospects in league history. Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson went second overall, and Warner went one spot after him.

Warner sometimes falls under Dickerson’s shadow, but the three-time Pro Bowler for the Seattle Seahawks was truly a phenomenal talent.

A rocket-propelled renegade with tenacious energy and zeal at 5’11”, 205 pounds, Warner brought an aggressive yet hyper-efficient running style downhill. He could slash past pursuit defenders with his twitch and lateral burst, then explode upfield and take over with his strides in space.

While his career may not have matched the prospect hype, Warner was quite the hot commodity ahead of the 1983 NFL Draft.

11) Ricky Williams, Texas

I really wanted to get Ricky Williams higher on this list, but he wasn’t even the first running back selected in the 1999 NFL Draft. At the same time, a team didn’t trade all of their draft picks (plus a first and third the following year) for the guy that went ahead of them as the New Orleans Saints did to select Williams.

Modern NFL fans probably think it’s absurd a team would do such a thing for a running back. There’s probably one player in the league right now that makes such a deal worth it (Patrick Mahomes). But it was a different time.

Williams won the Heisman off 2,124 yards and 27 TDs in 1998 and was viewed as a franchise-changing player. While his Saints career didn’t exactly go as planned, Williams was such a strong prospect that three years later, the Dolphins traded two first-rounders for him. He wound up not being worth it, but it goes to show just how talented he was believed to be.

10) Bijan Robinson, Texas

Given all the discourse surrounding the running back position, there’s an argument to be made that going top 10 in the NFL Draft in the 2020s is more impressive than all the running backs who went top three in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.

Ahead of Bijan Robinson’s selection at No. 8 overall by the Atlanta Falcons in the 2023 NFL Draft, he’d long been viewed as a generational talent. Robinson would’ve been a first-round pick had he entered the 2022 NFL Draft, but he wasn’t eligible.

Robinson was a do-it-all running back at Texas. He ran for over 1,100 yards at age 19 and scored 35 touchdowns across his final two collegiate seasons.

With a 4.46 40-time at 215 pounds, Robinson was fast, explosive, and a true threat in all phases.

Robinson possesses elite vision, creative instincts, and lateral flexibility. He’s a psychic behind the line of scrimmage who combines lightning-quick processing speed and sharp spatial awareness with outrageous short-area freedom and balance — all amounting to devastating creative potential.

9) Marshall Faulk, San Diego State

It’s easy to say Marshall Faulk is one of the greatest running backs of all time (because he is). What makes Faulk a top prospect is there were scouts who saw it coming ahead of time.

The 5’10”, 211-pound Faulk — who went second overall to the Colts in 1994 — amassed 1,530 yards and 21 touchdowns in 1993. He also doubled as an elite receiving threat, with 47 catches for 644 yards and three scores.

MORE: Ranking the Best NFL Draft Steals of All Time

Faulk made the Pro Bowl three times in Indianapolis, but he’s best known for his dominant stretch as the premier RB in the St. Louis Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf.”

It’s not unfair to say Faulk pioneered the modern pass-catching running back role. Yet, he was also an elite rushing threat. Faulk’s combination of speed, explosiveness, and deafening foot speed on his cuts are what made him one of the greatest RB prospects of all time.

8) Saquon Barkley, Penn State

It’s so difficult to compare the caliber of prospects across eras. Should Saquon Barkley be given extra points for going No. 2 overall in an era where running backs don’t go that high anymore?

2018 doesn’t feel like a long time ago, but it was six years ago. The NFL’s view on running backs has advanced even more since then. We were still at the tail-end of the “running backs matter” era.

Even so, Barkley was widely viewed as not just the top RB prospect but a generational talent. He had a collegiate career that saw him rack up 5,038 total yards from scrimmage and 51 touchdowns in just three years.

In every single facet, Barkley was a rare physical specimen and a sight to behold. At 5’11”, 233 pounds, Barkley brought the frame density and domineering play strength of a fullback through contact.

And yet, he ran at a 4.4 pace when he had space, and his elite explosiveness was documented by his 41″ vertical. RBs simply aren’t supposed to run and bend the way Barkley did at his size, and that unique raw talent, combined with his creative capacity and physicality, is what set him apart.

7) LaDainian Tomlinson, TCU

The Chargers selected LaDainian Tomlinson with the fifth overall pick of the 2001 NFL Draft. While obviously an incredible talent, if we’re going to boost Barkley and Robinson for going early in the modern era, I almost feel like we need to every so slightly ding Tomlinson for not going earlier, given the era in which he was drafted.

Tomlinson is arguably the most complete running back of all time. The ideal blend of rushing and receiving, Tomlinson was a top-five running back in the NFL for the entirety of his 20s. That’s a feat we may never see again.

Although he didn’t go top three, fifth overall is still impressive and speaks to how exceptional of a prospect he was. The lateral suddenness and hyperactive twitch to demolish a defender’s balance in the hole. The instant explosiveness to breach the second level and the speed to finish off game-changing plays.

To add even more volts to the current, Tomlinson had all this loaded potential energy at 5’10”, 215 pounds. He was a spark on the football field who suddenly solidified and rattled opponents at contact.

And on top of it all, he was a high-level receiving threat. He was a dominant force at TCU, and he carried that over to his professional career, winning MVP honors in 2006 and eventually earning the title of Hall of Famer.

6) Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma

Adrian Peterson was one of the first running backs I was truly able to appreciate as an incredible prospect. He was a pure runner in every sense of the term. While his lacking receiving profile may ding him on the all-time list, it certainly didn’t when he was coming out of Oklahoma.

At the time, we hadn’t seen a running back quite like Peterson since Barry Sanders. At 6’1″, 220 pounds, Peterson set the tone with his ultra-combative playstyle. He fought tackles tooth and nail on every down, using destructive pad charges, brutal stiff-arms, and stubborn leg churn to keep runs alive against all levels of resistance.

Lost behind the relentlessness of the 2004 Heisman runner-up, however, is just how naturally talented Peterson was. At his size, he ran a 4.4 flat at the 2007 NFL Combine, and his 10’7″ broad jump and 38.5″ vertical confirmed his on-field explosiveness. Peterson didn’t just break tackles; he destroyed them, and then he dusted you immediately after.

Peterson is almost certain to go down as the last running back ever to win the NFL MVP in 2012. I can’t think of a more deserving player.

5) Reggie Bush, USC

If you didn’t watch college football in the 2000s, you probably can’t understand just how incredible Reggie Bush was. His NFL career certainly failed to live up to expectations, but it’s easy to understand why the Saints made him the second overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft.

We didn’t know it yet, but we were about five years away from the passing revolution in the NFL. We were on the precipice of the beginning of the committee backfield and many teams having running backs that look like Bush. On some level, it feels like NFL teams knew this type of player could make an impact.

Unfortunately, Bush was ahead of his time. But from an evaluative standpoint, his profile was 1-of-1.

At 6’0″, 205 pounds, Bush didn’t have the mass and frame density other backs on this list boasted. Instead, Bush made his money as an exceedingly dynamic runner with 4.37 speed, elite downfield burst, and insane cutting ability and agility in open space.

Bush was a revelation with the ball in his hands, and he was also a hyper-versatile pass-catching weapon who could do anything from taking screens to splitting out wide and attacking vertically. In the modern NFL, he could have been a game-breaker.

4) Edgerrin James, Miami (FL)

It’s wild to think about how desirable Ricky Williams was as a prospect and then realize Edgerrin James went ahead of him. That fact alone solidifies James’ status as a superior prospect.

James was one of the most complete prospects in the history of the position. At 6’0″, 216 pounds, James was the ideal size for a feature back. He didn’t need to be fast; he just needed to be fast enough. Yet, he ran a blistering 4.38 40-yard dash with a 1.49 10-yard split, a 3.88 shuttle time, and a 6.87 three-cone.

Everything You Need for the 2024 NFL Draft
Draft Time | Draft Channel | Rules | Draft Order

Everything about James’ explosiveness appears on film. With it, he added elite contact balance as well.

Despite being drafted in 1999, James was utilized as a receiver, catching more than 60 passes three times in his career. That only added to what made him such an elite prospect.

There was no compromising through contact with James, who drove through tackles with extreme prejudice. But he also awed onlookers with his field-stretching speed and his sharp change of direction, and more often than not, he was able to avoid early contact altogether with his steely vision, foot speed, and adaptability.

3) Eric Dickerson, SMU

After putting up 487 carries for 3,045 yards and 36 touchdowns across the 1981 and 1982 seasons, Eric Dickerson was selected second overall by the Los Angeles Rams in the 1983 NFL Draft.

On the surface, Dickerson was Derrick Henry before Derrick Henry — a towering runner at 6’3″, 220 pounds who could so easily absorb tackles with his midsection and churn his legs.

But then you watch him teleport upfield with his one-step burst, instantly erode tackling angles, and offset defenders with fast feet and fluid hips, and you realize you only have half the picture.

Dickerson reportedly ran the 100m dash at 9.4 seconds in high school. He was an elite size/speed athlete who doubled as an elite runner. And while his prime in the NFL was relatively short, he was nearly unstoppable when he was at his peak. It’s why he’s immortalized in Canton, with a gold jacket to show for it.

2) Barry Sanders, Oklahoma State

Imagine you’re playing Road to Glory mode on easy difficulty. That was Barry Sanders at Oklahoma State in 1988. He amassed 344 carries for 2,628 yards and 37 touchdowns that year, winning the Heisman in a landslide, and he’d ultimately land with the Detroit Lions via the third overall pick in 1989.

What followed once Sanders hit the NFL stage? More dominance. He was an All-Pro in his first year and earned that distinction five other times in his career while also reaching the Pro Bowl 10 times. He’s fourth all-time in NFL rushing yards despite only playing 10 seasons, and he has a golden jacket to show for his accomplishments.

Sanders’ legacy is strong enough that it speaks for him now, but his talent on tape was the source of his greatness. At 5’8″, 203 pounds, Sanders was a legitimate human joystick in crowds, with oily hips, extraordinary full-field vision, and gravity-defying balance through contact.

He could put defenders on a string with his unfair cutting ability and instincts, and he was unnaturally proficient at keeping his legs churning through tackles.

1) Bo Jackson, Auburn

There’s an air of legend when people talk about Bo Jackson. It’s a popular thought exercise to think about how dominant Jackson could have been in the NFL if a hip injury suffered in 1991 hadn’t shortened his career to just four seasons.

But if we’re evaluating these players as prospects and what they brought on the NFL Draft stage, no one was more compelling than Bo.

Jackson was the 1985 Heisman winner with 278 carries, 1,786 yards, and 17 touchdowns at Auburn. Not only was Jackson a relentless rushing threat, but he was the transcendent athlete of his time. At 6’1″, 227 pounds, Jackson ran an unconfirmed 4.13 40-yard dash at his Tigers Pro Day.

Jackson was such a rare talent that Hugh Culverhouse — owner of the Buccaneers, who possessed the No. 1 overall pick in the 1986 NFL Draft — hosted Jackson on a private jet visit to try and entice him away from baseball, where he was also a star.

However, unbeknownst to Jackson, that visit wasn’t cleared by the NCAA, and when Jackson lost his baseball eligibility as a result, he shunned Tampa Bay in the draft.

Jackson would end up going to the Raiders a year later, and although his career in black and white was short, he made a lasting impression. He broke the Monday Night Football rushing record in his rookie year, notched 950 yards in 1989, and made the Pro Bowl in 1990.

KEEP READING: Ranking the Best NFL Draft Classes of All Time

There are super-athletes, and then there’s whatever Jackson was. He was simply different, and his combined pace and power are what made him so frightening for defenses. He could destroy tackling angles with game-breaking speed and destroy solo tackles with unhinged tenacity.

No running back was more dangerous with daylight. Jackson functioned as a freight train in space with his combined speed and mass, but he brought even more to the table as a runner. His vision was a strength, and he could correct attack angles with searing lateral twitch before loading opportunities to explode up seams.

Draft with your friends today! PFN’s Mock Draft Simulator now supports multiple drafters during the same draft! Ensure your player rankings are up to date on the 2024 NFL Draft Big Board and you know what every NFL team needs before drafting.

Listen to the PFN Inside Access Podcast!

Listen to the PFN Inside Access Podcast! Click the embedded player below to listen, or you can find the PFN Fantasy Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, and all major podcast platforms.  Be sure to subscribe and leave us a five-star review!

Join the Conversation!

Related Articles