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Gridiron Greats: Ranking The Top 10 Best NFL Running Backs Of All Time

Walter Payton - NFL All-Time Greatest Fantasy Football Running Backs

There's rarely going to be a "Greatest" list put together that everyone agrees with. That's very likely the case with our "Top 10 NFL Running Backs of All Time" rankings, but man, it sure is fun to debate some of the greatest RBs in pro football history.

We're here to break down the top 10 running backs of all time, with an emphasis on finding a balance between longevity and excellence in the short term. While the quarterback, wide receiver, and tight end positions have seen dramatic changes in usage and importance to the game of football, running backs have always had a big-time role in an offense, making it a bit easier to compare players from the past to now.

That said, Nick Chubb, Derrick Henry, and Christian McCaffrey could eventually stamp their names among the all-time greats, but it's too early to have them skip the line, so no active players are featured in this article. Without further ado, let's dive into it.

Be sure to check all of our fantasy football rankings for 2024 fantasy football drafts:

 

10. Tony Dorsett, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos

Career Stats: 2,936 attempts, 12,739 rushing yards, 77 rushing touchdowns, 398 receptions, 3,554 receiving yards, 13 receiving touchdowns

Dorsett was the Cowboys star before Emmitt Smith came to town, posting eight 1,000-yard seasons and bringing Dallas its second Super Bowl in franchise history. All young NFL fans remember Derrick Henry's 99-yard run against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday Night Football, but Dorsett's 99-yard scamper was the first of its kind and was showcased on Monday Night Football.

Dorsett can be forgotten about at times thanks to the ridiculous amount of superstars the team brought in in the early and mid-90s, but he was one of the best backs of his era and has plenty of homerun speed receiving chops.

 

9. Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers, Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills, New York Jets

Career Stats: 3,735 attempts, 16,000 rushing yards, 81 rushing touchdowns, 484 receptions, 3,985 receiving yards, 18 receiving touchdowns

Despite only having one All-Pro (second-team) honor on his resume, Gore has to be listed among the greatest rushers of all time. He was never considered the best running back in the league during his playing days, but he spanned the test of time posted nine 1,000 rushing yard seasons.

Gore posted 3,960 rushing yards after he turned 33 and was still a solid rotational back all the way to age 37. For playing 241 games in 16 years on his way to the third-most rushing yards all-time at this position, he's more than deserving of the nod. There are very few running backs who will ever replicate the longevity and success of his career.

 

8. Eric Dickerson, Los Angeles Rams, Indianapolis Colts, Los Angeles Raiders, Atlanta Falcons

Career Stats: 2,996 attempts, 13,259 rushing yards, 90 rushing touchdowns, 281 receptions, 2,137 receiving yards, six receiving touchdowns

Dickerson's first four years in the league rival anybody's in the history of the sport. After racking up 1,808 rushing yards, 404 receiving yards, and 20 total touchdowns in his rookie year, he rushed for 2,105 yards (NFL record) in his sophomore campaign. He would post five 1,000-plus-yard rushing seasons after that hot start, but ultimately had his career derailed by injuries in his early 30s.

Still, he sits ninth all-time in rushing yards and has a case for the greatest single season at the position. Dickerson became a household name and his Jheri Curls and goggles made him recognizable outside of the helmet.

7. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints, Arizona Cardinals, Washington Redskins, Detroit Lions, Tennessee Titans, Seattle Seahawks

Career Stats: 3,230 attempts, 14,918 rushing yards, 120 rushing touchdowns, 305 receptions, 2,474 receiving yards, six receiving touchdowns

If it weren't for Frank Gore, Peterson would be known as the modern day Iron Man among running backs. Most of his damage as a ball-carrier came in his first 10 seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, where he broke the NFL's season game rushing record (296), led the league in rushing three times, was named to seven Pro Bowls, and earned an MVP award just a season after tearing his ACL and MCL.

He hit a bit of a lull in New Orleans and Arizona before posting his last 1,000-yard season with the Redskins at age 33. Ultimately, late-career injuries and lack of pass-catching skills kept his career from being even greater, but he earns a top-seven spot all time.

 

6. Jim Brown, Cleveland Browns

Career Stats: 2,359 attempts, 12,312 rushing yards, 106 rushing touchdowns, 262 receptions, 2,499 receiving yards, 20 receiving touchdowns

Brown is the only player in NFL history to lead the league in rushing eight times and he held the yards-per-carry record (5.2) by a running back (minimum 750 carries) from his retirement in 1965 until Jamaal Charles broke the record in 2012. He remains in 2nd place all-time over 50 years after his last NFL game.

His 5.2 average puts him an entire yard over Emmitt Smith, so he has a strong case for the most efficient career on a per-game basis among ball carriers.

Brown played in the league when racial tensions were heavy, but dominated from start to finish, earning three MVPs, nine All-Pros, nine Pro Bowls, and a spot on the NFL's 100th Anniversary Team.

 

5. LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego Chargers, New York Jets

Career Stats: 3,174 attempts, 13,684 rushing yards, 145 rushing touchdowns, 624 receptions, 4,772 receiving yards, 17 receiving touchdowns

Tomlinson began his career with eight straight 1,000 rushing yard seasons and was a fixture to find the end zone double-digit times every year. He still holds the record for the most rushing touchdowns in a single season (28) but falls under the radar in all-time talk. The San Diego Chargers never went deep into the playoffs and were a small market team, but LT made the NFL world pay attention to the Bolts.

Tomlinson ranks third all-time in receptions from the RB position, too. Soon enough, plenty of new-generation running backs will climb the ranks in that category, but he played long enough ago to consider him slightly ahead of the curve.

 

4. Marshall Faulk, Indianapolis Colts, St. Louis Rams

Career Stats: 2,836 attempts, 12,279 rushing yards, 100 rushing touchdowns, 767 receptions, 6,875 receiving yards, 36 receiving touchdowns

Before Christian McCaffery, there was Marshall Faulk. While other guys on this list were ahead of their time as a receiver, Faulk holds the record for most receptions among running backs all time and has a 1,000-yard receiving season on his resume. The Greatest Show on Turf offense was run through Faulk en route to Super Bowl XXXIV.

The value of the running back position has declined in recent years, but Faulk is arguably the most valuable running back to his offense of all time. The three-time Offensive Player of the Year and one-time league MVP is often forgotten about at the top of the rankings, but that's a disservice to his revolutionary career.

 

3. Barry Sanders, Detroit Lions

Career Stats: 3,062 attempts, 15,269 rushing yards, 99 rushing touchdowns, 352 receptions, 2,921 receiving yards, 10 receiving touchdowns

If the argument here was the best running back for an individual season or game, Sanders has a strong case to be the best running back of all time. He only played 10 seasons, but never rushed for fewer than 1,115 yards (11 games). He topped 1,300 yards in all eight seasons otherwise and finished his career with seasons of 2,053 and 1,491 rushing yards. His 15,269 rushing yards stand as the most through a player's first 10 seasons.

He still has the highest yards per carry in NFL history among players with 3,000 attempts (5.0) and showed no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Ultimately, he retired early and healthy or he could have been the runaway (no pun intended) No. 1 running back in the history of the game.

 

2. Walter Payton, Chicago Bears

Career Stats: 3,383 attempts, 16,726 rushing yards, 110 rushing touchdowns, 492 receptions, 4,538 receiving yards, 15 receiving touchdowns

Payton spent all 13 years of his Hall-of-Fame career in Chicago after being selected fourth overall in the 1975 NFL draft. Every season, a player who shows a charitable heart off the field is awarded the Walter Payton Man of the Year award. Players are often added to "all-time great lists" simply because of their off-the-field work, but Payton has the real resume to place him second all-time among running backs.

At the time of his retirement, he held the records for attempts, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and all-purpose yards. It's worth noting his career 4.4 yards per carry exceed Emmitt Smith's (4.2). The Bears' identity was built on playing great defense and running the offense through Payton, leading to Chicago's first and only Super Bowl win (Super Bowl XX).

 

1. Emmitt Smith, Dallas Cowboys, Arizona Cardinals

Career Stats: 4,409 attempts, 18,355 rushing yards, 164 rushing touchdowns, 515 receptions, 3,224 receiving yards, 11 receiving touchdowns

The 11th overall pick in the 1990 NFL Draft holds the record for the most rushing attempts, yards, and touchdowns. Longevity matters in this conversation, and he's the best to ever do it in that regard. His resume is littered with three Super Bowl titles, a Super Bowl MVP, a regular season MVP, eight Pro Bowls, and six All-Pro selections.

His 226 games played is almost unheard of due to the nature of the position, but Smith withstood it all on his way to Canton. He was a slick receiver for the time in the early 90s and did it all to lead the way for America's Team with a star-studded roster.



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