Top 10 Running Backs Of All Time – Who Are The Best RB in the NFL?
In modern football, the role of the running back has a much different impact on the game than just a couple of decades ago. Still, today’s ball carriers have the opportunity to become stars just like their predecessors.
If you are wondering who is the greatest running back of all time, our answer is Jim Brown, and today we break down his career as well as the careers of the top 10 running backs of all time.
10. Tony Dorsett
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- NFL teams: Dallas Cowboys (1977–1987), Denver Broncos (1988)
- Accolades: NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, 1x First-team All-Pro, 2x Second-team All-Pro, 4x Pro Bowl, 1x Super Bowl champion
- Records: 99-yard rushing touchdown (tied with Derrick Henry)
We start our list of the best RB of all time with Tony Dorsett. Dorsett is one of those players who came into the league with a great resume. He was a four-time All-American as well as the most outstanding player in college.
It is safe to say that the Heisman winner did not disappoint in the NFL.
In fact, during his 12 years in the league he never averaged less than 1,000 yards. His single-season high was 1,646.
Dorsett retired in 1988 with 12,739 yards rushing yards, which was at the time, 2nd to Walter Payton all-time.
9. Bo Jackson
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- NFL teams: Los Angeles Raiders (1987–1990)
- Accolades: 1x Pro Bowl
- Records: n/a
Bo Jackson might be the running back with the shortest NFL career on this list, but the three years he spent in the league were enough for him to achieve greatness.
Jackson is another Heisman winner, but the thing that sets him apart from all other players on the list (and most athletes in general) is that he played two sports professionally at the same time (baseball being the other).
During the best year of his career, Jackson averaged 6.8 yards per attempt, and in the three years he played for the Raiders he averaged 5.4 yards per attempt.
This is the second highest total for players with at least 500 attempts in NFL history and is the best of all players on this list.
If there wasn’t for a hip injury that ended his NFL career, there is no doubt that he would be much higher on this list.
8. Barry Sanders
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- NFL teams: Detroit Lions (1989–1998)
- Accolades: 1x NFL Most Valuable Player, 2x NFL Offensive Player of the Year, NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, 6x First-team All-Pro, 4x Second-team All-Pro, 10x Pro Bowl, 4x NFL rushing yards leader, 1x NFL rushing touchdowns leader
- Records: n/a
Barry Sanders spent 10 years in the NFL, all with the Detroit Lions. During this time he never failed to make the Pro Bowl team.
He had his best year in 1997 when he had a 2,053-yard season and was named the NFL MVP.
Sanders also collected 1,300-plus rushing yards in all but one of his seasons for a total of 15,269 yards on the ground, 2,921 as a receiver, and 109 combined touchdowns.
Unfortunately for Sanders, during his whole career, the Lions didn’t manage to assemble a contender team. That was one of the main reasons why he decided to retire after only 10 seasons.
7. Gale Sayers
- NFL teams: Chicago Bears (1965–1971)
- Accolades: NFL Comeback Player of the Year, NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, 5x First-team All-Pro, 4x Pro Bowl, 2x NFL rushing yards leader, 1x NFL scoring leader
- Records: Most touchdowns in a season by a rookie (22), Most all-purpose touchdowns in a single game (6 – tied with Ernie Nevers and Alvin Kamara)
When your nickname is the Kansas Comet, you are probably a very fast runner, and Gale Sayers was one of the fastest NFL players in history.
Long before he became a best-seller, Sayers was tormenting opposing defenders with his quickness and agility.
At 34 years, he is the youngest player to ever be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Unfortunately for the Hall of Famer, injuries prevented him from having an even better career.
During his time in the NFL, Sayers averaged 5.0 yards per carry across, and 800-plus rushing yards five times. In total, he scored 56 TDs.
6. Eric Dickerson
- NFL teams: Los Angeles Rams (1983–1987), Indianapolis Colts (1987–1991), Los Angeles Raiders (1992), Atlanta Falcons (1993)
- Accolades: 1x NFL Offensive Player of the Year, NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, 3x UPI NFC Offensive Player of the Year, 5x First-team All-Pro, 6x Pro Bowl, 4xNFL rushing yards leader, 1x NFL rushing touchdowns co-leader
- Records: 2,105 rushing yards in a season, 1,808 rushing yards in a rookie season, 248 rushing yards in a playoff game
After being selected as the second overall pick in the 1983 NFL draft Erick Dickerson wasted no time proving that he will be a future Hall of Famer.
In his first season with the Los Angeles Rams, Dickerson would go on to cruise to 1,808 yards and 18 touchdowns.
This earned him the Rookie of the Year award.
In his second season, he broke the single-season rushing record with 2,105 yards. In total, he collected 13,259 rushing yards in his career and is considered one of the greatest players to ever win the Super Bowl.
5. LaDainian Tomlinson
- NFL teams: San Diego Chargers (2001–2009), New York Jets (2010–2011)
- Accolades: 1x NFL Most Valuable Player, 1x NFL Offensive Player of the Year, 3x First-team All-Pro, 3x Second-team All-Pro, 5x Pro Bowl, 2x NFL rushing yards leader, 3x NFL rushing touchdowns leader, 1x NFL scoring leader
- Records: Most rushing touchdowns in a season (28), Most touchdowns from scrimmage in a season (31), Most consecutive games with a touchdown (18 – tied), Most points scored in a single season (186)
In our opinion, the fifth greatest running back in NFL history is Ladinian Tomlinson. Tomlinson is one of three players who managed to have at least 100 receptions during one NFL season.
He did this in 2003, the same year he had 1,645 yards and 13 scores on the ground.
During his NFL career, the TCU product amassed 13,684 yards and 145 scores as a runner and added 624 receptions for 4,772 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Tomlinson holds several NFL records including the Most rushing touchdowns in a season with 28 and the most touchdowns from scrimmage in a season with 31.
4. Adrian Peterson
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- NFL teams: Minnesota Vikings (2007–2016), New Orleans Saints (2017), Arizona Cardinals (2017), Washington Redskins (2018–2019), Detroit Lions (2020), Tennessee Titans (2021), Seattle Seahawks (2021)
- Accolades: 1x NFL Most Valuable Player, 1x NFL Offensive Player of the Year, NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, 4x First-team All-Pro, 3x Second-team All-Pro, 7x Pro Bowl, 3x NFL rushing yards leader, 2x NFL rushing touchdowns leader
- Records: Most rushing yards in a game (296)
Adrian Peterson spent the first decade of his career with the Vikings, and this was also the best part of his career.
During his stint with Minnesota, he collected 11,747 rushing yards and 97 touchdowns which comes to almost 10 TDs per season.
In 2012, he had 2,097 yards and came close to overthrowing Dickerson’s single-season record.
Paterson has been a top-ten running back for the majority of his NFL career and he holds the record for most rushing yards in a NFL game with 296.
In addition to this, he was the NFL MVP, NFL Offensive Player of the Year as well as the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
3. Emmitt Smith
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- NFL teams: Dallas Cowboys (1990–2002), Arizona Cardinals (2003–2004)
- Accolades: 1x Super Bowl MVP, 1x NFL Most Valuable Player, NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, 4x First-team All-Pro, 2x Second-team All-Pro, 8x Pro Bowl, 4x NFL rushing yards leader, 3x NFL rushing touchdowns leader, 1x NFL scoring leader, 3x Super Bowl champion
- Records: 18,355 career rushing yards, 164 career rushing touchdowns, 409 career rushing attempts
Emmitt Smith is not only a legend in the eyes of the Dallas Cowboys fans, but he also owns some of the records that probably won’t be broken including 18,355 career rushing yards and 164 career rushing touchdowns.
During his career, he also set the record for most single-season rushing touchdowns with 25.
That record was broken in 2003 by Priest Holmes and then again by Tomlinson, when he scored 28 TDS in 2006.
Aside from obliterating the record book, the Cowboys star also has 1 MVP award, 1 Super Bowl MVP as well as 3 Super Bowl Rings which easily put him in the top running backs of all time conversation.
2. Walter Payton
- NFL teams: Chicago Bears (1975–1987)
- Accolades: 1x NFL Most Valuable Player, 1x NFL Offensive Player of the Year, 1x NFL Man of the Year, 5x First-team All-Pro, 3x Second-team All-Pro, 9x Pro Bowl, 1x NFL rushing yards leader, 1x NFL rushing touchdowns leader, 4x NFL rushing attempts leader, 1x Super Bowl champion
- Records: Most consecutive starts by a running back (170)
Walter Payton is one of the most versatile running backs in the history of the NFL. The Chicago Bears star was equally good at rushing as he was at catching the ball, and this makes him the second-best running back of all time in our eyes.
During his time in the NFL, “Sweetness” set the then rushing yards record with 16,726.
His best season came in 1977 when he was the league MVP with 1,852 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. He would go on to break the 1,200-yard barrier ten times in his career.
With 21,264 yards from scrimmage, Payton also ranks third all time.
If we take one look at his accolades that include 1x NFL Most Valuable Player, 1x NFL Offensive Player of the Year, 1x NFL Man of the Year, and 1 Super Bowl ring, it is easy to see why he has considered one of the best running backs the NFL has ever seen.
1. Jim Brown
- NFL teams: Cleveland Browns (1957–1965)
- Accolades: 3x NFL Most Valuable Player, NFL Rookie of the Year, 8x First-team All-Pro, 1x Second-team All-Pro, 9x Pro Bowl, 8x NFL rushing yards leader, 5x NFL rushing touchdowns leader, 1x NFL scoring leader, 1x NFL champion
- Records: n/a
Jim Brown is considered to be the greatest running back in NFL history. His resume includes three MVP awards, one scoring title, and one NFL championship, among other things, as well as a rushing average of 5.2 yards to carry.
During his stay in the NFL, Brown led the league in rushing every season but one and never failed to make the First-team All-Pro.
He is also the only running back to average more than 100 yards rushing per game.
The Browns star also set the then record with 12,312 yards and 106 touchdowns on the ground. It is a pity that his time in the league was cut short since there is no doubt in our mind that he had a lot more to offer.