The Best NFL Running Backs of All-Time, Ranked
The role of NFL running backs has changed drastically over time, with them initially being counted on as the workhorse in a time before pass-first offenses took over. The backs of old certainly shouldered more of the workload, but also had increased longevity than many of today’s rushers.
Running backs come in all shapes and sizes, with electric, smaller backs like Adrian Peterson or Eric Dickerson, dual-purpose backs that are talented pass-catchers like Marshall Faulk or LaDanian Tomlinson, and power backs that break tackles with ease like Earl Campbell or Jim Brown. Given that variety, it’s no easy feat ranking who were the best to ever tote the rock in the NFL. Check out our list…
#30 – Bo Jackson
Bo Jackson is one of the biggest “what-ifs” in sports. The former Heisman Trophy winner, baseball player and track-and-field star, still has the fastest ever 40-yard dash in NFL combine history. In 1987, the Los Angeles Raiders drafted Jackson, who was already playing for baseball for the Kansas City Royals, and allowed him to join the team once the MLB season was over.
Jackson turned heads on his Monday Night Football debut, running for an astounding 221 yards and 3 touchdowns, including a 91-yard run. His career was cut to a short 4 years after a bad hip injury, but in that time, he amassed 16 rushing TDs, nearly 3,000 yards and is the only running back to have 2 separate 90+ yard rushes. Not bad for someone who had football as an “offseason hobby.”
#29 – Marshawn Lynch
Marshawn Lynch brought a big, bold personality to the running back position. He spent most of his career in Seattle, before taking a year off at age 30, then coming back to play for the Raiders.
Lynch has racked up more than 10,000 yards and 84 touchdowns carrying the ball during his career, being a major component of the the dominant Seahawks offense that won Super Bowl XLVII. He was an effective receiver too, with more than 2,000 yards and 9 touchdowns through the air. Lynch remains a fan favorite due to his ability to turn on Beast Mode and non-serious approach to media interviews.
#28 – Frank Gore
Frank Gore solidified himself as the all-time rushing yards leader during his 10 seasons with the 49ers. After leaving San Francisco, Gore played for a few years with the Indianapolis Colts and then a season each with the Dolphins, Bills, and ended his career with the New York Jets at the age of 37.
Known in his later years for his longevity, especially for a running back, the ageless-Gore hung up his cleats with an impressive 16,000 rushing yards, and nearly an additional 4,000 receiving yards. He ranks 3rd on the all-time rushing list, and is certainly headed for Canton one day.
#27 – Shaun Alexander
Shaun Alexander helped many fantasy owners win a lot of leagues. During his nine seasons in the NFL, he amassed almost 9,500 rushing yards and scored 100 rushing touchdowns.
Alexander won the MVP and Offensive Player of the year in 2005, a season in which he racked up 1,880 rushing yards and scored 27 rushing touchdowns. Injuries plagued the latter half of his career, but he still managed to break into the top-10 for all-time rushing touchdowns.
#26 – Tiki Barber
Tiki Barber became the feature back in New York after a relatively slow start to his career. Once he took over the Giants backfield, he racked up six 1,000 yard seasons, over 10,000 career rushing yards, and scored 55 rushing touchdowns. Barber also had 556 career receptions for over 5,000 yards.
Barber retired from football at age 31 to pursue a media career, so he probably had many more yards and touchdowns left in the tank. Considering the perils of the position, he was known for his durability and stayed remarkably healthy during his career.
#25 – Derrick Henry
Derrick Henry is still in the beginning of his career, but his torrid pace has him positioned to take his place among the all-time greats. Henry has already amassed over 6,700 rushing yards and 65 touchdowns since 2016.
Henry is a blend of size and speed that makes him such a talented back. He rushed for over 2,000 yards in 2020 and was well on pace to do it again in 2021 before breaking his foot. Once he is back to full strength he should be able to pick up where he left off, running away from the rest of the league.
#24 – Eddie George
Eddie George won Rookie of the Year in 1996, was a four time Pro Bowler, a member of the 10,000 rushing yard club, and finished his career with 68 rushing touchdowns. George demonstrated remarkable durability during his career, tallying over 300 carries every year of his career except for his final season.
Amazingly, George never missed a start, which is almost unfathomable for a running back. He rushed for over 1,000 yards in seven of his eight seasons for the Tennessee Titans. George added 268 receptions during his career for over 2,200 yards with 10 receiving touchdowns.
#23 – Franco Harris
Franco Harris was one of the lynchpins of the 1970s Steelers teams that won four Super Bowls during the decade. He rushed for over 12,000 yards and 91 touchdowns over the course of his career. Harris won Rookie of the Year and was named to nine Pro Bowls during his tenure.
On the receiving end, Harris finished his career with over 2,000 receiving yards and 9 touchdowns. He also has one of the most famous catches in NFL history, the Immaculate Reception.
#22 – Warrick Dunn
Warrick Dunn may have been one of the smaller backs on this list in stature, but he made up for it in production. He broke into the league in 1997, racking up over 1,000 all-purpose yards and winning Rookie of the Year. Over his career, he rushed for over 10,000 yards and 49 touchdowns.
Dunn was one of the best pass catching backs of his era, catching 510 balls for his career for over 4,000 yards. Dunn made three Pro Bowls over the course of his career in Tampa Bay and Atlanta. Versatility was Warrick Dunn’s calling card, as evidenced by his more than 15,000 all purpose yards.
#21 – Terrell Davis
Terrell Davis was a vital part of the Denver Broncos’ success in the late ’90s, as they won back-to-back Super Bowls in John Elway’s final years. Like Gale Sayers before him, the rusher nicknamed “TD” only played in 7 seasons, with only four of them being nearly-full seasons.
Still, Davis had impressive numbers despite his short career. During the ’97 and ’98 seasons when the Broncos won it all, he 1750 and 2000 yards respectively, garnering an unbelievable 15 and 21 touchdowns in those seasons. His 60 career touchdowns and over 7500 yards make football fans wonder what may have been if he had played longer.
#20 – Ricky Watters
Ricky Watters burst onto the scene his rookie year and rushed for over 1,000 yards. He would go on to do that six more times over the course of his decade-long career. Watters finished his playing days with over 10,000 rushing yards and 78 touchdowns.
Watters was one of the backs that excelled in the passing game as well, tallying over 4,000 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns through the air. During his ten seasons in the league, Watters made the Pro Bowl five times and even won a Super Bowl ring.
#19 – Jamal Lewis
Jamal Lewis played on Baltimore teams where the defensive players were the stars, but he was an absolute workhorse for those Ravens’ squads. He joined the exclusive 2,000 yard rushing club in 2003 and won a Super Bowl as well. Lewis rushed for over 10,000 yards and 58 touchdowns during his tenure.
Had he not missed his entire second season with an injury, Lewis would have even bigger numbers. His grinding style was exactly what his teams needed as they relied on running and defense to win.
#18 – Jerome Bettis
Jerome Bettis has one of the all-time legendary nicknames in football: “The Bus.” Bettis rushed for over 1,000 yards 8 times in his career and excelled in short-yardage situations. The big, bruising back ran over defenders that made the mistake of putting themselves in his path.
Bettis rushed for over 13,000 rushing yards over his 13 seasons and found the end zone 91 times. The Bus was a running back whose style perfectly embodied style of play the Steelers were known for.
#17 – John Riggins
John Riggins was one of the most dominant running backs of the 1970s. Riggins played 14 seasons in the pros, rushing for over 1,000 yards in five of them and making two Pro Bowls. He was a touchdown machine, scoring 104 times on the ground and 12 times through the air.
Riggins rushed for over 11,000 yards during his lengthy career and had over 2,000 receiving yards. He seemed to get better as his career went by, as demonstrated by his 1983 season where he rushed for over 1,300 yards and 24 touchdowns.
#16 – Edgerrin James
Edgerrin James was the running back who played in a pass-first offense led by quarterback Peyton Manning. Those passing attacks would not have been nearly as potent if defenses didn’t have to account for James as a threat himself. Winning Rookie of the Year, he also made the Pro Bowl four times.
James rushed for more than 12,000 yards during his career and scored 80 rushing touchdowns. He also contributed to the potency of those Colts passing offenses, with over 3,000 receiving yards and 11 receiving touchdowns.
#15 – Thurman Thomas
Thurman Thomas was a dual-threat back who was extremely effective in both the running and passing games. The 1991 league MVP rushed for over 1,000 yards eight straight times during his tenure and was named to five Pro Bowls. Though he never won a title, Thomas was one of the staples that led the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive Super Bowl appearances.
Thomas racked up over 12,000 rushing yards and 4,000 receiving yards over the course of his career. He scored 65 touchdowns on the ground and 23 through the air and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007.
#14 – Curtis Martin
Curtis Martin ran for over 1,000 yards in all but one of the seasons he played, his last one. He played 11 seasons in New England and New York, making the Pro Bowl in five of those. He was an All-Pro in 2004 when he rushed for over 1,600 yards.
Martin racked up more than 14,000 yards on the ground and scored 90 rushing touchdowns during his career. He also caught 484 balls for over 3,000 yards, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012.
#13 – Tony Dorsett
Tony Dorsett was a four-time Pro Bowler for Dallas, playing 12 seasons for the Cowboys and Broncos. He was a threat to score any time he touched the ball. A productive back throughout his entire career, he rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 7 seasons.
Dorsett finished his career with more than 12,000 rushing yards and 77 rushing touchdowns. He was an effective pass catcher as well, with over 3,000 receiving yards and 13 touchdown catches and was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
#12 – Marcus Allen
Marcus Allen played 16 seasons in the pros, which is pretty unheard of for most NFL players, let alone a running back. His career started off with a bang, winning Rookie of the Year in 1982. He carried the ball more than 3,000 times over his career and tallied over 12,000 rushing yards. On the receiving side, he caught 587 balls for more than 5,400 receiving yards.
Allen was known mainly for scoring touchdowns, and he certainly scored a lot of them. During his career he scored 123 times rushing and 21 times receiving. He won a Super Bowl with the Raiders and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2003.
#11 – O.J. Simpson
Orenthal James (O.J.) Simpson is certainly more infamous in his post-football years, but during his playing time, he was one of the all-time greats. He is one of the few to rush for over 2,000 yards in a season, and racking up more than 1,500 yards three times. He was named an All-Pro five consecutive seasons and led the league in rushing four times.
Simpson totaled over 11,000 rushing yards and scored 61 rushing touchdowns. He added more than 2,000 yards and 14 touchdowns receiving as well. The Hall of Famer played for 11 seasons, mostly with Buffalo before ending his career in San Francisco.
Honorable Mention: Clinton Portis
Clinton Portis had his career cut short by injuries, but managed to rush for over 1,000 yards in six of his nine seasons with the Broncos and Redskins. He finished with just shy of 10,000 career rushing yards and scored 75 touchdowns on the ground, adding over 2,000 receiving yards to his totals.
Winning Rookie of the Year in Denver, he was their feature back for two seasons before being traded to Washington. He ran into trouble in recent years however. In 2021, he pled guilty to defrauding the NFL in a health care scheme and may face a 10-year prison sentence.
Honorable Mention: Roger Craig
Roger Craig was a staple of the San Francisco 49ers teams of the 1980s and was a dual threat weapon in the West Coast Offense. He rushed for more than 8,000 yards and 56 touchdowns in his career, in addition to more than 4,500 receiving yards and 17 receiving touchdowns.
The three-time Super Bowl champion was named to four Pro Bowls and was the 1985 Offensive Player of the Year. In that 1985 season, Craig had over 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving. His skills complemented legends Joe Montana and Jerry Rice in the high-powered San Francisco offense, but he is not currently in the Hall of Fame, though many feel he should be.
Honorable Mention: Corey Dillon
Corey Dillon spent most of his career in Cincinnati, but won a Super Bowl during a stint in New England. He amassed over 11,000 rushing yards and 82 rushing touchdowns throughout his career. Dillon was very consistent, rushing for over 1,000 yards in all but three of his 10 seasons.
Dillon was named to four Pro Bowls during his career, with his most prolific season coming in 2004 with New England, when he rushed for over 1,600 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Honorable Mention: Ottis Anderson
Ottis Anderson burst into the pros in 1979 when he tallied more than 1,600 rushing yards and scored 8 touchdowns. He garnered more than 10,000 rushing yards during his career and scored 81 times on the ground.
He began his career with the St. Louis Cardinals (now Arizona) before being traded to the Giants in 1986. Anderson had more than 3,000 yards receiving and was named to two Pro Bowls. He also won two Super Bowl rings as a member of the Giants.
Honorable Mention: Larry Csonka
Larry Csonka has become renowned for his distinctive last name, and his mustache, both of which perfectly suited him in the era he played in. He was a major cog in the 1972 Miami Dolphins offense that famously went undefeated.
Csonka rushed for more than 8,000 yards during his career and racked up 64 rushing touchdowns. He was a five-time Pro Bowler and won two Super Bowls in Miami. Csonka was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987.
Honorable Mention: Priest Holmes
Priest Holmes was perhaps the original fantasy football legend. The dual-threat back was dominant on the ground and through the air, as evidenced by his first three seasons where he tallied more than 2,000 all- purpose yards.
Holmes finished his career with more than 8,000 yards and scored 86 rushing touchdowns. He added more than 3,000 receiving yards and caught 8 touchdown passes and was named to the All-Pro team on three occasions.
Honorable Mention: LeSean McCoy
LeSean McCoy was one of the best all-purpose running backs in recent years. A mainstay of the Philadelphia Eagles’ offense and a six-time Pro Bowler, he was also named an All-Pro three times.
McCoy has over 11,000 rushing yards and 3,000 receiving yards. Tack on a total of 68 rushing touchdowns and another 15 receiving touchdowns and he will certainly have a strong case for the Hall of Fame once he is eligible.
Honorable Mention: Fred Taylor
Fred Taylor toiled away in Jacksonville and may have been a bigger star in a more recognizable market. One of the best running backs of the 2000s, Taylor amassed over 11,000 rushing yards in his career and found the end zone 66 times on the ground. His career average of 4.6 yards per carry is a testament to just how effective Taylor was.
Taylor was yet another running back who battled injuries throughout his playing career, but he still managed to play 13 seasons. n 7 of those 13 seasons, Taylor rushed for over 1,000 yards. Taylor also added 290 receptions during his playing career for over 2,000 yards.
#10 – Adrian Peterson
Adrian Peterson is the ageless wonder that always seems to have just a little more in the tank. He has had some major injuries during his career but always manages to bounce back, even after missing an entire season in 2014 with a torn ACL. He had a 2,000 yard season in 2012, putting him in rare company.
Peterson has rushed for over 13,000 yards during his years and has found the end zone 106 times carrying the ball. He has been named to 7 Pro Bowls, led the league in rushing 3 times, and was the league MVP in 2012. Once he hangs up the cleats for good, it will simply be a matter of waiting for the call from the Hall of Fame.
#9 – Earl Campbell
Earl Campbell had a brief career, but packed a lot of fireworks into his years. Injuries cut his career short, but he rushed for over 9,000 yards and was known for breaking off spectacular runs. He scored 74 rushing touchdowns over his tenure.
His first three seasons were memorable, when he had more than 3,000 rushing yards and scored 40 touchdowns. Campbell won an MVP award and was named Player of the Year three times. He was inducted as a member into the Hall of Fame in Canton in 1991.
#8 – Eric Dickerson
Eric Dickerson was the 1983 Rookie of the Year when he burst onto the scene with over 1,800 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. He joined the 2,000 season yard club his second season. He tallied more than 1,200 rushing yards in each of his first seven seasons in the pros.
Dickerson finished up with more than 13,000 yards rushing and scored 90 rushing touchdowns. Injuries hampered the later years in his career but he was named to the All-Pro team five times. Dickerson was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1999.
#7 – Gale Sayers
Gale Sayers would have been an internet sensation if he had played in the modern era. His electric runs and kick returns are still the stuff of legend. He played for only 7 seasons but was a dominant force for Chicago in the 1960s.
Sayers had more than 4,900 yards rushing during his brief career, as well as over 1,300 yards receiving. On the kick return side, he had more than 2,700 yards and 6 touchdowns. He also returned punts to the tune of 391 yards and two touchdowns.
#6 – Marshall Faulk
Marshall Faulk is another dual threat back who dominated the fantasy football scene for those lucky enough to draft him. The dynamic player found the end zone many times during his career, finishing with 100 rushing scores and another 36 touchdowns receiving.
He tallied over 12,000 rushing yards and 6,000 receiving yards during his years and was named to 7 Pro Bowls and 3 All-Pro teams. He was a major part of the Super Bowl winning “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams team. The 2000 MVP was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2011.
#5 – LaDainian Tomlinson
LaDainian Tomlinson is another back that was dominant when it came to running and catching. He scored 10 or more touchdowns in nine straight seasons and was one the most dynamic dual-purpose backs.
Tomlinson rushed for more than 13,000 years during his tenure, scoring 145 times in the process. He was also a fantastic receiver, with over 4,000 yards and 17 touchdowns. He was named to 5 Pro Bowls and won an MVP award. Once he hung them up, Tomlinson was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2017.
#4 – Walter Payton
Walter Payton had a nickname that was simply perfect for him, “Sweetness.” The Chicago legend was the workhorse of the 1985 Bears team that is considered one of the best of all-time. He shouldered a heavy load his entire career, with over 3,800 carries and 492 receptions.
Payton finished his lengthy career with more than 16,000 rushing yards and 4,500 receiving yards. He scored 110 rushing touchdowns and added 15 receiving touchdowns. His name is still spoken in mythic tones by Chicago Bears’ fans.
#3 – Emmitt Smith
Emmitt Smith was one of the driving forces of the Dallas teams that won three Super Bowls in the 1990s. He played for 15 seasons, leading the league in rushing four of those. He was named to 8 Pro Bowl teams and won an MVP award.
Smith has more than 18,000 career rushing yards and scored 165 rushing touchdowns. He also caught over 500 passes for more than 3,000 yards. His best season was in 1995, when he rushed for more than 1,700 yards and scored 25 touchdowns. He received the call from the Hall of Fame in 2010.
#2 – Barry Sanders
Barry Sanders was electricity personified for the Detroit Lions. He walked away while still seeming to have plenty of gas left in the tank, so we can only speculate what his career numbers would look like had he chosen to keep playing. Astoundingly, he made the Pro Bowl every season he played.
Sanders finished his career with more than 15,000 rushing yards and scored 99 rushing touchdowns. He is also perhaps the first legendary football video game character, with many controllers being smashed in frustration trying to stop the digital version of him Sanders. He won an MVP award and two Offensive Player of the Year awards on his way to his Hall of Fame induction in 2004.
#1 – Jim Brown
Jim Brown played for nine seasons and retired before his 30th birthday to pursue a career in acting. Those nine years in Cleveland were the stuff of legends, however. He was an All-Pro 8 times and won three MVP awards.
Brown rushed for over 12,000 yards during his brief career and scored 106 rushing touchdowns. He also added 2,500 receiving yards during his years and caught 20 touchdown passes. The Hall of Famer is also considered to be one of the greatest college football and college lacrosse players of all-time.