30 Best NFL Running Backs of All Time

30 Best NFL Running Backs of All Time

The first weekend of February begs only one question for NFL fans each year.

Who will win the biggest trophy in worldwide sport? Well, this year’s clash in Super Bowl LIV means that either the San Francisco 49ers or the Kansas City Chiefs will hold the Lombardi Trophy aloft. 

To mark this magnificent occasion, 90min takes a look at the 30 greatest running backs to have graced the National Football League throughout its illustrious 100 year history. 

​30. Edgerrin James

We begin this list with one of the greatest players to ever wear the blue and white of Indianapolis. 

The second cousin of current LA Chargers safety Derwin James, Edgerrin was drafted by the Colts in 1999, James an astonishing five 1,000 yard rushing seasons whilst in Indy, good for a franchise-record 9,226 yards. 

29. Ezekiel Elliott

‘Zeke has proven to be a bruising bulldozer of a runner behind one of the league’s best offensive lines since entering the league in 2016. 

Many critics were sceptical of taking a running back so high in the Draft when Elliott was picked fourth overall by Jerry Jones but that gamble has more than paid off, with Elliott racking up 40 rushing touchdowns in his first four seasons. 

28. Jamaal Charles

The all-time leader in yards per carry (5.38) for players with over 1,000 carries, Charles possessed elite speed upon entering the NFL which he was never able to fully recover from two serious ACL injuries in the space of four years.

27. Frank Gore 

An ageless wonder who never seems to stop, Gore is still going strong as the oldest active running back in the league at 36.

The all-time rushing leader for hopeful Super Bowl-winners the San Francisco 49ers has never failed to pass the 500-yard mark in his 14-year career which is a testament to his remarkable toughness and longevity. 

26. Shaun Alexander

A historic season in 2005 saw Alexander rush for a then-single season record 27 touchdowns, it was broken just a year later by LaDanian Tomlinson, to become only the fourth player to rush for 20 or more touchdowns in consecutive seasons. 

Alexander was also the first player to appear on the covers of both Madden and NCAA Football in 2006 before being named to the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team.

25. Larry Csonka

Potentially the greatest full back the league has ever seen, Csonka was an integral member of the Miami Dolphins’ historic 1972 Super Bowl winning side that remains the only the team in NFL history to have gone through an entire season undefeated. 

24. Ollie Matson

A six-time Pro Bowler, Matson was part of one of the most unusual trades ever seen in the NFL when he was traded to the Los Angeles Rams for no fewer than nine of their players in the 1958 offseason. Boy could Chicago do with nine new players this offseason, too.

23. Joe Perry

No, don’t worry, this entry isn’t about the snooker player. 

It’s about the former 49ers great, whose first name is in fact Fletcher. Fletcher Joe Perry played in the NFL in three separate decades from the 1940s to the 1960s, enjoying an illustrious career that saw him retire as the league-record rusher in 1963, with a colossal 7,344 yards. 

22. Marcus Allen

Touted as the best short-yardage back to ever step foot on a football field, Allen was the first player to reach the double milestone of 10,000 rushing yards and 5,000 receiving yards, demonstrating his talent as both a pass-catcher and downhill runner. 

21. John Riggins

Much like New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’, Riggins’ career got better as time passed. 

Like ‘Blue Monday’, just when you thought it was over, Riggins came back for some more. 

So productive was his powerful style of running that he led the league in rushing in back-to-back seasons at 34 and 35 years old, appearing in 175 games over 14 seasons. 

20. Terrell Davis

This is what ‘T.D.’ did between 1996-98: won two Super Bowls, a Super Bowl MVP, earned hree Pro Bowl nods, three first-team All-Pro nominations and two Offensive Player of the Year awards. 

All those accolades in three years? Quite the CV for T.D.

19. Thurman Thomas 

Thomas was a key piece in the Buffalo Bills’ juggernaut of a ‘no-huddle’ offence in the early ’90s that won four consecutive AFC Championships but, unbelievably, didn’t manage to win a Super Bowl. 

He is also the only player in NFL history to lead the league in scrimmage yards through four consecutive seasons.

18. Curtis Martin

A Pittsburgh native, Martin demonstrated an elite level of consistency throughout his entire career, finishing with fewer than 1,000 rushing yards only once in the 11 seasons he played in. 

Appearing five-times in the Pro Bowl, Martin’s No.28 jersey was retired by the New York Jets in 2012, following his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

17. Jerome Bettis

The ex-Steelers back was on the verge of retirement after losing the 2005 AFC Championship Game to the New England Patriots, before quarterback Ben Roethlisberger convinced him to play one more year. 

Thankfully for Big Ben and Bettis, it was a fairytale ending to the latter’s career as he was victorious in Super Bowl XL in his home city of Detroit. 

16. Adrian Peterson

‘A.P’ took the league by storm as a rookie in 2007, when he smashed the single-game rushing record to run for 296 yards against the San Diego Chargers. 

Now in the twilight of his career, Peterson has enjoyed a renaissance with the Washington Redskins, rushing for 898 yards in the 2019 season en route to becoming the fifth-highest rusher in NFL history.

15. Marshall Faulk

A cornerstone of the Rams team that brought us the ‘Greatest Show on Turf’, Faulk produced some astonishing performances throughout the 1999 season to finish with over 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving, guiding his team to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV.

14. Steve van Buren

‘Supersonic Steve’ was arguably the first great power-back in the NFL, his tough, rugged style more akin to that of a full-back than a traditional halfback. 

Winner of two NFL Championships in 1948 and 1949, the Eagles legend also won three straight rushing titles and became the first player to rush for 1,000 yards in multiple seasons. 

13. Marion Motley

Known for his versatility that allowed him to play on both offence and defence, Motley exemplified the concept of pass-blocking in the backfield to the highest of standards.

He was a selection as one of twelve running backs in the NFL 100 All-Time Team, as well as being among the first two African-Americans to play professional football alongside Cleveland Browns team-mate Bill Willis. 

12. Lenny Moore 

The only player in NFL history to record 40 rushing and receiving touchdowns, Moore was mentored by the aforementioned Ollie Matson. 

The mentoring certainly seemed to boost Moore’s confidence as he went to score a whopping 111 touchdowns in 143 regular season games, also winning two straight NFL titles with the Baltimore Colts. 

11. Earl Clark 

“Dutch” Clark was one of the most important figures in the popularisation of professional football, starting off as a member of the Detroit Lions, where he won the 1935 NFL Championship.

Clark also enjoyed an impressive coaching career, presiding over six different teams including his beloved Lions and was named as the Associated Press’ ‘Football Man of the Decade’ for his contribution to the sport in the 1930s.

10. Emmitt Smith 

We begin the top ten with one of the game’s greatest icons.

The league’s all-time leading rusher with 18,355 yards, Smith was perhaps the most important member of the famous ‘Triplets’ group alongside Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin that helped Dallas to three Super Bowls throughout the 1990s. 

9. O.J. Simpson

Tied with Terrell Davis for the fastest player to reach 1,000 yards in a season, doing so in seven games, Simpson’s NFL records are now almost completely overshadowed by the legal cases that plague his name. 

Despite appearing in the playoffs only once in his career, Simpson was the first back in NFL history to become a member of the coveted ‘2,000 Club’, surpassing the rushing landmark in 1973.

8. Tony Dorsett

Inducted into both the Pro and College Football Hall of Fame in 1994, Dorsett will be most fondly remembered for breaking the longest run from scrimmage in league history in 1983 when he ran for a 99-yard touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings. 

7. Earl Campbell

 A member of the Houston Oilers’ memorable ‘Luv Ya Blue’ that made three straight playoff appearances, Campbell is without doubt one of the finest power backs the NFL has ever seen.

So bludgeoning was Campbell’s running style that former Redskins linebacker Pete Wysocki said of him: “Every time you hit him you lower your own IQ”.

6. Barry Sanders

Without doubt one of the most elusive runners the game has ever witnessed, Sanders is also one of the best individual talents to have never made the Super Bowl.

Ghosting past despairing defenders with a slaloming style of running, Sanders ran for at least 1,400 yards in seven consecutive campaigns. His remarkable consistency is best illustrated by the fact he an All-Pro selection for ten straight seasons.

5. Eric Dickerson

Dickerson’s iconic goggles, which he wore due to short-sightedness, were a sight to behold for defenders, so rarely was he brought down that the opposition would be lucky to catch any more than their own diving reflections in his lenses. 

Dickerson holds the landmark of achieving the most rushing yards in single a season (2,105), to become second member of the ‘2,000 Club’ in 1984.

4. LaDanian Tomlinson

The achievements of ‘L.T’ are widely documented, so here is something you may not know about the former San Diego star.

He threw for seven touchdowns over the course of his NFL career alongside the more well-documented accolades of scoring the most touchdowns in a single season (31) and the fastest players to gain 15,000 yards from scrimmage 

3. Gale Sayers

The ‘Kansas Comet’ had a glittering career as a member of the Chicago Bears, but it was a case of short and sweet for Sayers, who only lasted seven seasons in the NFL due to constant injury problems.

Nevertheless, Sayers possessed lightning speed and a knack for being able to navigate a cluster of defenders at any point. In his own words, all Sayers needed was “18 inches of daylight”

2. Walter Payton

A true gentlemen not just in the NFL, but in the history of sport, Walter Payton was a true great both on and off the field. On the field, Payton holds the record for the most consecutive starts by a running back (170) as well as the most games (108) with 100 or more yards from scrimmage.

Tragically though, Payton contracted a liver disease at the age of just 45 and passed away in 1999. R.I.P. Walter. 

1. Jim Brown 

Brown is potentially the greatest player in the history of football, let alone the greatest running back. He was invited to the Pro Bowl in every single one of his nine seasons in the league.

Once he did retire in 1965, Brown had smashed almost every record for a running back, including: most carries (2,359), most touchdowns (106) and most rushing yards (12,312). There’s also the small matter of being the only player to average over yards per game. 


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