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Top-26 Running Backs in NFL History

The best ball-carriers
Publish Date: 11/24/2023
Fact checked by: Simon Briffa

Current players are not eligible to be on this list. Honorable mention status goes to Jerome Bettis, Jamal Lewis, Ricky Watters, Eddie George, Joe Perry, Lenny Moore, Ernest Byner, Ahman Green, Gerald Riggs, Freeman McNeil and James Brooks.

26) Warrick Dunn

Dunn spent six seasons with the Bucs and six seasons with division rival the Atlanta Falcons. Dunn retired with 10,967 yards on the ground, which ranks as 19th best on the NFL’s all-time rushing list.

Video: Warrick Dunn: Florida State (2006)

Warrick Dunn: Florida State (2006)

25) Shaun Alexander

Alexander accounted for 9,453 yards over his nine-year career—impressive for such a short-lived career.

Shaun Alexander who recently retired in 2008 played most of his years as a Seattle Seahawk. While in Seattle, Alexander was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 2005 when he rushed for 1,880 yards while scoring 27 touchdowns and leading his team to the Super Bowl.

24) Ottis Anderson

This two-time Pro Bowler, Ottis Anderson, spent eight years in St. Louis and seven years as a New York Giant.

Anderson has accumulated 10,273 yards over his long 15-year career. His best season came in 1979, his rookie year, where he ran for 1,605 yards.

Video: Ottis Anderson - University of Miami Sports Hall of Fame

Ottis Anderson – University of Miami Sports Hall of Fame

23) John Riggins

John Riggins had a lengthy career, playing nine seasons with the Washington Redskins and five with the New York Jets. Riggins is on the NFL’s all-time rushing list with 11,352 yards. During his 14 years in the league, Riggins scored an impressive 104 touchdowns on the ground.

Video: John Riggins. The DIESEL

John Riggins. The DIESEL

22) Tiki Barber

Tiki Barber was a member of the New York Giants for 10 years where he ran for a total of 10,449 yards, which is 22nd best all time. Barber was only a three-time Pro Bowl but was one of the best running backs in the 2000s.

Video: Tiki Barber Highlights

Tiki Barber Highlights

21) Corey Dillon

Dillon was a key member in the team’s 2004 Super Bowl title as he ran for a franchise best 1,635 yards. Dillon retired in 2006 with 11,241. If he wasn’t stuck in Cincinnati most of his career he would probably be top 10.

20) Marcus Allen

Marcus Allen recorded 12,243 yards on the ground through his very length career in football. Allen spent 11 seasons with the Oakland Raiders and five with the Kansas City Chiefs. Allen’s best season came in 1985 when he racked up 1,759 yards on the ground and scored 11 touchdowns.

Video: Marcus Allen NFL career highlights

Marcus Allen NFL career highlights

19) Jim Taylor

When you think of old-school football, running back Jim Taylor should appear in your mind. Taylor had a remarkable 10-year career and ended his career with 8,597 yards.

Video: NFL Tough Guys Jim Taylor

NFL Tough Guys Jim Taylor

18) Larry Csonka

Over his 11-year career, Csonka ran for 8,081 yards. Csonka also scored an impressive 64 touchdowns.

Video: Larry Csonka Tribute

Larry Csonka Tribute

17) Roger Craig

Roger Craig, former running back of the San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Raiders and Minnesota Vikings won three Super Bowls with the 49ers. Over his 11-year career, Craig accumulated 8,189 yards and caught an incredible total of 566 passes. Every team he played on in his career made the playoffs.

Video: Roger Craig vs RAMS.mpg

Roger Craig vs RAMS.mpg

16) Terrell Davis

With no injury and a complete career, he may have been number one. Davis is one of the few running backs to run for 2,000 yards in a season as he tallied up 2,008 yards in 1998.

Video: Terrell Davis Highlights

Terrell Davis Highlights

15) Curtis Martin

Martin spent time with the New England Patriots and New York Jets during his 11-year career. Martin’s best season came in 2004 when he ran for 1,697 yards while averaging a stellar 4.6 yards per carry.

14) Ladainian Tomlinson

Tomlinson is often referred to by his initials, L.T. was an effective passer on halfback option plays, Tomlinson threw seven touchdown passes and ranks second behind Walter Payton (8) for non-quarterbacks since the AFL–NFL merger in 1970. He was named to the NFL’s 2000s All-Decade Team as one of the top running backs of the 2000s.

Video: LaDainian Tomlinson career highlights

LaDainian Tomlinson career highlights

13) Franco Harris

Harris was one of the most violent runners to ever play the game as he ran for 12,120 yards and scored an impressive 91 touchdowns. While playing 12 seasons as a Pittsburgh Steeler, Harris won the Super Bowl four times.

Video: Franco Harris Highlights

Franco Harris Highlights “Immaculate”

12) Thurman Thomas

Thomas rushed for 12,074 yards. During his career, Thomas played 12 seasons as a Buffalo Bill and one as a Miami Dolphin. Thomas’s best season came in 1992 as he ran for 1,487 yards and scored nine touchdowns.

Video: Thurman Thomas Hall of Fame Feature

Thurman Thomas Hall of Fame Feature

11) Tony Dorsett

Dorsett was a very underrated running back. Dorsett was the difference in putting the 1977 Cowboys over the top and helping to lead them to a Super Bowl title. Dorsett ran for a total of 12,739 yards in his 12-year career. Dorsett was a very explosive back as he averaged 4.8 yards per carry in 1977 as he ran for 12 touchdowns that season.

Video: Tony Dorsett

Tony Dorsett

10) Gale Sayers

Sayers career was shortened by injury, but he was maybe the greatest open-field runner in football history. Sayers ran for 4,956 yards during his very short-lived seven-year career. Gale Sayers, who retired at the age of 28, averaged a whopping 5.0 yards-per-carry—just imagine if he kept on playing.

9) Emmitt Smith

Smith is the NFL’s all-time leading rusher with 18,355 yards, however, he did that in 15 years in the NFL–nevertheless, that is still one of the NFL’s greatest accomplishments. I know people will say I am crazy for putting him this low. I just feel that the 8 guys ahead of him were better running backs.

Video: Emmitt Smith (RB, Dallas Cowboys) Career Highlights | NFL

Emmitt Smith (RB, Dallas Cowboys) Career Highlights | NFL

8) O.J. Simpson

Simpson was a six-time Pro Bowler as a Buffalo Bill and ran for a career 11,236 yards on the ground. His best season came in when he ran for 2,003 yards—one of a few backs to eclipse the 2,000-yard mark.

Video: NFL - Special - Story Of O J Simpson - From USC To The NFL Hall of Fame

NFL – Special – Story Of O J Simpson – From USC To The NFL Hall of Fame

7) Earl Campbell

While playing only in nine seasons in the league, Earl Campbell ran for 1,000 yards five times in his career. Campbell retired with a total of 9,407 yards, but he scored an amazing 74 touchdowns and averaged 4.3 yards per carry.

Video: Earl Campbell: A Football Life - The Ultimate Back

Earl Campbell: A Football Life – The Ultimate Back

6) Adrian Peterson

He just retired after one of the most decorated careers in NFL history, of course, he is still trying to continue to play but prospects don’t look promising.

He was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings seventh overall in the 2007 NFL Draft. As a rookie, he set an NFL record for the most rushing yards in a single game (296) and was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. He was then awarded the MVP award for his performance in the Pro Bowl and became only the fifth player in NFL history to have more than 3,000 yards through his first two seasons. In 2010, he became the fifth-fastest player to run for 5,000 yards, doing so in his 51st game.

In 2012, Peterson became the sixth-fastest player to reach 8,000 rushing yards, ending the season with 2,097 rushing yards, just nine yards shy of breaking Eric Dickerson’s single-season all-time record. Peterson amassed 2,314 all-purpose yards from scrimmage in 2012, tying Marcus Allen for the eighth-highest total ever. For his efforts, he received the NFL MVP Award and the AP NFL Offensive Player of the Year Award for the 2012 NFL season. During the 2013 season, Peterson became the third-fastest player to reach 10,000 rushing yards in NFL history. In 2015, Peterson became the oldest running back to be named first-team All-Pro at 30.

5) Marshall Faulk

One of the greatest all-around running backs in history. Faulk ran for 12,279 yards over his career and caught 767 balls for an incredible total of 6,875 yards. Faulk spent seven years as a St. Louis Ram and five seasons as an Indianapolis Colt. His best season came in 2001 when he ran for 1,382 yards, however, the Rams lost the Super Bowl to the New England Patriots that season.

4) Eric Dickerson

Eric Dickerson dominated the decade of the 80’s, he was a six-time Pro Bowl and Hall of Fame inductee in the class of 1999 ran for a career 13,259 yards.

Dickerson became one of the few NFL running backs to gain 2,000-plus yards in a season when he racked up 2,105 in 1984. In ’84, Dickerson averaged 131.6 yards per game and 5.6 yards per carry.

Video: Eric Dickerson One of the Greatest

Eric Dickerson One of the Greatest

3) Barry Sanders

Sanders ran for 1,500-plus yards five times in his 10-year career—and he always made the 1,000-yard mark in all 10 of those seasons. Sanders ran behind, what most believe to be, a very poor offensive line. Some plays, Sanders would lose five yards, but then he’d get back up and gain 20 yards just like that. As he retired in 1998, he scored an improbable 99 touchdowns and averaged an even more impressive 5.0 yards per carry.

2) Walter Payton

One of the greatest all-around football players of all-time, Payton ran for over 16,000 yards in his career. During his very long 13-year career, Payton won one Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears in 1985 when he ran for 1,551 yards and scored nine touchdowns while averaging 4.8 yards per carry.



1) Jim Brown

During his nine-year career, Brown set multiple records in such an early stage of the sport. Brown ran for a career best 1,863 yards in 1963 when he scored 12 touchdowns on the ground and averaged a tremendous 6.4 yards per carry—that is unheard of.

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