Ranking the Top 10 Greatest NFL Running Backs of All Time

The Running Back is surely one of the most important offensive positions in the game, second only to the quarterback. Over the years, there have been several big names who have graced the field by playing in this position, but seldom have people realized just how important these men were to their team’s offensive lineup.

Today, we bring you a list of the top 10 greatest NFL running backs in the history of the game. There might be some names you’ve heard of and some that you haven’t. But each of these ten men can hold their head high as the people who carried their teams to several fabled victories.

Well, this is something that needs to be cleared up right out of the gate, Franco Harris was not your flashy running back. But he delivered results, game after game. Rarely dipping into his sizzling repertoire of moves, this hard-hitting steeler was always at the helm of their offense for 13 seasons and carried the team to some famous Super Bowl victories, the most fabled of which came in 1975.

For the 13 years that Harris was part of this storied outfit, he led the franchise in rushing yards for 12 of them. In fact, he cleared the 1000-yard rushing mark in eight of those seasons, a rare feat in those times. The four-time Super Bowl winner left the game with 12,120 rushing yards and 91 touchdowns to his name, a true great.

#9. LaDainian Tomlinson

LaDainian Tomlinson is a name that haunted the opposition for quite a while during the mid-2000s. The way he used to sway across defensive lines and bully his way through to the endzone was simply a thing to behold for teammates and spectators. In fact, he is one of the only three running backs to ever record 100 receptions in a single season.

The five-time Pro Bowler finished his career with 13,684 yards and 145 scores as a runner, adding 624 receptions for 4,772 yards and 17 touchdowns. Those are numbers you can only achieve if you are better than most of your opposition. LaDainian Tomlinson’s storied career also included an MVP award that he received in 2006.

#8. Tony Dorsett

Tony Dorsett is one of those players whose name fans would fondly remember as someone who terrorized the opposition with darting runs and his electrifying pace. It just was a thing to behold and feast your eyes upon. Over his career, Dorsett amassed 12,739 yards and 77 touchdowns, numbers for the books.

The four-time Pro Bowler is also a Hall-of-Fame inductee and has his name etched in the hallowed walls of Canton. His eight years of posting 1000-plus receiving yards are still remembered by NFL veterans. Dorsett will surely go down as one of the greatest running backs the game has ever seen.

#7. Marshall Faulk

Marshall Faulk was simply a force to reckon on and off the gridiron where his electrifying pace and supreme skills have earned him the name of being one of the most devastating running backs in the history of the game. The deadly combination of running and receiving was what led the LA Rams to their famous Super Bowl victory in 1999.

Faulk ended his career with 12,279 rushing yards and 100 touchdowns to his name. The seven-time Pro Bowler also won the Offensive Player of The Year award for three consecutive seasons in a row, a testament to his sheer dominance.

#6. Adrian Peterson

Adrian Peterson is probably the only player on this list who hasn’t hung up his boots just yet. Peterson is still operating as a free agent in 2023. However, that is by no means a disrespect to the kind of performances and heights he has achieved in his prime. AP has so far recorded 11,747 rushing yards and 97 touchdowns to his name.

The Minnesota Vikings great lit up the league with his pace and his ability to maneuver himself through tight spaces. In fact, it is for these reasons that the seven-time Pro Bowler was awarded the MVP award back in 2012. Other than that, Adrian Peterson also won the Offensive Player of The Year award in 2007 for his exceptional performances throughout the season.

#5. Eric Dickerson

Right from his first season in the NFL, Eric Dickerson was a player that fans soon realized was destined to be great. He achieved his destiny quickly enough and was lighting up the league long before the twilight of his career. In fact, Dickerson was the one who broke OJ Simpson’s rushing record of 2,003 yards in a single season with 2,105 yards.

Eric Dickerson finished his career with 13,259 rushing yards and 90 touchdowns. When asked about his greatness out on the field, he said, “People talk about the greatest runners. Some say Walter [Payton] is the best, some say O.J., some may say me, some say Jim Brown. I just say I’m good.”

#4. Barry Sanders

Now we get to the big boys of this league. And when talking about big boys, Barry Sanders is surely one of the greatest ever. His presence alone meant that the spectators were in for a treat. His run with the Detroit Lions is considered to be one of the most successful in franchise history.

Sanders achieved the remarkable feat of surpassing 1,300 rushing yards on nine occasions, with his highest mark reaching an impressive 2,053 yards during his MVP season in 1997. His cumulative ground yardage amounted to 15,269 yards, complemented by 2,921 receiving yards and a total of 109 touchdowns.

While Sanders is still considered one of the true greats of the game, his early retirement at the peak of his powers irks many to this day. That single question goes down as one of the biggest “what-ifs” in football history.

#3. Jim Brown

Jim Brown, Jim Brown, Jim Brown. Add another one to the list of what-ifs in football. Had Jim Brown focused on honing his talent more and focusing on the game that he loved, maybe he would’ve been ranked higher on this list of players. But as history tells us, things seldom work out the way you want them to, and that is exactly what happened with the 1977 HOF inductee.

The three-time MVP played in the league for nine years and treated fans to a spectacle of composure and guile throughout his time inside the gridiron. At the end of his career, Brown had amassed 12,312 yards and 106 touchdowns to his name, one of the highest stats in that era.

#2. Emmitt James Smith

Emmitt James Smith III was a player whose name was synonymous with scintillating performances and a passion for breaking records one after the other. In his 15 years gracing the field, the Cowboys superstar destroyed defenses with ease and treated fans to a spectacle like none other.

Smith finished his career with 18,355 career rushing yards and 164 career rushing touchdowns. He also held the record for the most touchdowns in a single season with 25 to his name. If not for a certain “Sweetness,” the 1993 MVP, three-time Super Bowl champion, four-time All-Pro, and eight-time Pro Bowler would’ve certainly been reigning at the top of our list.

#1. Walter Payton

In the 12 years that he was a part of the NFL fraternity, there was nobody better than him. When he stepped onto the field, it felt as if obliterating the opposition was just one of his daily activities that he went about with complete nonchalance and suave composure. Such was the skill and grace of the great Walter Payton.

“Sweetness” as he was often called, is surely the greatest running back of all time. With 16,726 rushing yards and 110 touchdowns to his name, Payton goes down as someone who had no regard for the quality of the opposition he faced. His nine Pro Bowls and being awarded as the MVP in 1977 are a testament to his skill. Walter Payton is the only one who deserves to top this list.

These 10 legendary running backs have made their place in the annals of history by their sheer dominance on the gridiron. The league has also seen some of the best talents in the RB room who deserve to be on the same table. Here are the honorable mentions:

  • Curtis Martin (New England Patriots 1995-97; New York Jets 1998-2006)
  • O.J. Simpson (Buffalo Bills 1969-77; San Francisco 49ers 1978-79)
  • Tony Dorsett (Dallas Cowboys 1977-87; Denver Broncos 1988)
  • Gale Sayers (Chicago Bears 1965-71)
  • Thurman Thomas (Buffalo Bills 1988-99; Miami Dolphins 2000)

Do you have any honorable mentions for the greatest NFL running backs? Let us know down in the comments.

Debdutta Sinha

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