Top 30 Best Running Backs of All Time

By Ryan Finklestein - December 07, 2018

The NFL has been becoming more of a passing league with each year, as rules make it easier to throw the football all over the field. Still the best way to control the pace of a football game is by running the ball effectively and that will never change. Here are some of the best running backs in the history of the NFL.

30. Marion Motley

Marion Motley was more of a fullback then a running back during his career, but he was one of the most gifted runners of the football that the NFL has ever seen. His 5.7 yards per carry are the most for any fullback in NFL history and Motley was also a force on defense where he played linebacker.  

29. Herschel Walker

Herschel Walker was a Heisman Trophy winner in college at Georgia and came into the NFL was one of the most promising running back prospects in the league. Walker was a two-time Pro Bowler at the start of his career playing for the Dallas Cowboys. Walker may be most known for the trade that sent him out of Dallas and to the Minnesota Vikings. The trade is considered one of the most lopsided in NFL history as the Cowboys got a boatload of draft picks that transformed their team into one of the most dominant in the NFL in the 1990s.  

28. Stephen Jackson

Although Todd Gurley is quickly gaining on all of his career records, Stephen Jackson still sits as the Rams franchise rushing leader. Jackson is a member of the 10,000 rushing yards club, with a career total of 11,438 yards. Jackson also tallied over 3,000 yards receiving in his career and was a three-time Pro Bowler.  

27. Leroy Kelly

Leroy Kelly was a running back for the Cleveland Browns and he won an NFL championship in his first year in the league in 1964. Kelly did not become the featured runner for the Browns until Jim Brown retired before the 1966 season. Kelly then would go on to lead the league in rushing yards twice and in rushing touchdowns three times.  

26. LeSean McCoy

Known by his nickname of “Shady”, LeSean McCoy has been one of the best running backs in the NFL for the past decade with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Buffalo Bills. McCoy has already joined the 10,000 rushing yards club and still looks to have a few more good years left in him.  

25. Larry Csonka

Larry Csonka was a powerful runner that was responsible for some of the best teams in the history of the NFL with the Dolphins. Csonka won two Super Bowls with Miami, the first one being part of the only undefeated season in NFL history. In his second Super Bowl victory, Csonka was the Super Bowl VIII MVP after rushing for a then-record 145 yards and two touchdowns.  

24. John Riggins

John Riggins started his career with the New York Jets but had more success in his later years playing for the Washington Redskins. Riggins won the Comeback Player of the Year Award in 1978, after rushing for 1,014 yards. Riggins led the league in touchdowns twice and his 24 touchdowns in 1983 was an NFL record.  

23. Steve Van Buren

Steve Van Buren was really a pioneer for the running back position, being the first player to ever rush for 10 touchdowns in a season, a feat he accomplished three times. Van Buren was also the first player to rush for over 1,000 yards in multiple seasons. Van Buren also led the NFL in rushing four times.  

22. Jerome Bettis

Known as the Bus, Jerome Bettis had a remarkable career, primarily playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Bettis is currently ranked seventh on the all-time rushing list with 13,664 career rushing yards. Bettis’ played his last game in Super Bowl XL and after the Steelers won the game he announced his retirement.  

21. Terrell Davis

Terrell Davis is the greatest running back to ever play for the Denver Broncos, as he had one of the most prolific four-year stretches in NFL history. Davis rushed for 6,413 yards and 56 touchdowns in his first four years in the league and led the Broncos to two Super Bowl wins. Davis was the Super Bowl XXXIII MVP after recording 102 rushing yards and 50 receiving yards in the game. Davis also won the regular season MVP that year after rushing for over 2,000 yards.  

20. Joe Perry

Joe Perry was the first African-American player to be named the MVP in the NFL in 1954 after leading the league in rushing for the second straight year. Perry averaged 4.8 yards per carry in his career and scored 53 rushing touchdowns.  

19. Marcus Allen

Allen is the only player to ever win a Heisman Trophy, an NCAA national championship, the Super Bowl, the Super Bowl MVP and a regular season MVP. Allen was also the first player in NFL history to eclipse 10,000 rushing yards and 5,000 receiving yards. Allen finished his career with 12,243 rushing yards and 145 touchdowns.

18. Jim Taylor

Jim Taylor was a great running back for the Green Bay Packers and was a four-time NFL champion. Taylor led the league in rushing yards (1,474) and rushing touchdowns (19) in 1962 and was named the league’s MVP.  

17. Edgerrin James

Edgerrin James was amazing at the start of his career with the Indianapolis Colts, leading the league in rushing in both of his first two season. James rushed for well over 3,000 yards in those two seasons combined and found the end zone 26 times. James finished his career in the 10,000 yard club with 12,246 yards gained on the ground.  

16. Curtis Martin

Curtis Martin began his career playing for the New England Patriots and then later went to the New York Jets as a free agent. Martin eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing in each of his first 10 seasons in the NFL. Martin was a five-time Pro Bowler and rushed for 14,101 yards and 90 touchdowns in his career.  

15. Thurman Thomas

Thurman Thomas shared the backfield with quarterback Jim Kelly in the 1990s when the Buffalo Bills went to four-straight Super Bowls. Thomas eclipsed 2,000 yards from scrimmage in 1991 and was named the league’s Offensive Player of the Year and MVP awards. Thomas rushed for 12,074 yards in his career and made five Pro Bowls.  

14. Frank Gore

If given the opportunity, Frank Gore is going to get four yards per carry until the sun burn outs as the 35-year-old running back is still playing at a high level now. Gore is the 49ers all-time leader in both rushing yards and touchdowns and has over 14,000 rushing yards and counting in his career.

13. Franco Harris

Franco Harris was an excellent player for the Pittsburgh Steelers and a real reason for their four Super Bowl victories in the 1970s. Harris rushed for 158 yards and touchdown in Super Bowl IX and was named the games MVP. Harris was a nine-time Pro Bowler and finished his career with over 12,000 rushing yards.  

12. O.J. Simpson

O.J. Simpson is now infamous for his life after his playing career, but he is still one of the greatest to ever play the running back position. Simpson was the first player to rush for over 2,000 yards in a season and the only person to ever do so under the 14-game season format. Simpson did this during the 1973 season and his 143.1 yards-per-game that year are still the best in NFL history. Simpson led the league in both rushing yards and touchdowns that year and was named the MVP.  

11. Tony Dorsett

Tony Dorsett is one of the great running backs in the history of the Dallas Cowboys franchise and was a four-time Pro Bowler. Dorsett rushed for 12,739 yards and could have finished with even more had his career not been cut short due to injuries. Dorsett once took the ball from one goal-line to other for the longest run in NFL history at 99 yards.  

10. Earl Campbell

Earl Campbell was known as a punishing runner that was adept at breaking tackles and turning it into big gains. Campbell was named the Offensive Player of the Year in each of his first three seasons in the NFL, in which he averaged over 1,700 rushing yards per season. Campbell was a Pro Bowler in five of his seven years with the Houston Oilers.  

9. Gale Sayers

Due to injuries, Gale Sayers really only played five seasons in the NFL but he was one of the most talented players that we have ever seen. As a rookie, Sayers set a league record for 22 touchdown, including six in one game, and had over 2,000 all-purpose yards. Sayers was named the Rookie of the Year and was First-team All-Pro. Sayers was named First-team All-Pro five times and was the 1969 Comeback Player of the Year.  

8. Eric Dickerson

Eric Dickerson still hold the NFL-record for the most rushing yards in a season with 2,105 yards in 1984. Dickerson also has the rookie rushing yards record, as he accumulated 1,808 yards in his first year in the NFL. Dickerson was a six-time Pro Bowler during his career with the Rams and the Colts.  

7. LaDainian Tomlison

LaDainian Tomlinson was an incredible running back during his career with Chargers, as he led the league in rushing yards twice and in rushing touchdowns three times. Tomlinson was the MVP in 2006 after rushing for 1,815 yards and 28 touchdowns, both of which were the best marks in the league.  

6. Adrian Peterson

Adrian Peterson is a seven-time Pro Bowler and one of the best running backs we have ever seen, especially in recent years. Peterson is still adding to his gaudy career numbers as he is playing at a high level for the Washington Redskins. Peterson has the record for 296 rushing yards in single game.  

5. Emmitt Smith

An argument can be made for Emmitt Smith to be number one on this list, as Smith has the most rushing yards (18,355), rushing touchdowns (164) and attempts (4,409) in the history of the NFL. The reason Smith is not number one is because he played behind an amazing offensive line that made his job easier and his longevity helped him accumulate those great numbers. Still, Smith is one of the best running backs we have ever seen and is a three-time Super Bowl champion.  

4. Marshall Faulk

A dual-threat coming out of the backfield, Marshall Faulk is one of the three players in NFL history to gain 10,000 yards on the ground and 5,000 yards through the air. He is also the only player to rush for over 12,000 yards and pick up 6,000 receiving yards in his career.  

3. Barry Sanders

Barry Sanders was a remarkable talent that was also remarkably consistent in his NFL career. Sanders played ten seasons with the Detroit Lions and was a Pro Bowler in every single one of them. Sander was also named All-Pro every season and was the 1997 NFL MVP. Sanders owns countless NFL records such as being the only player in NFL history to rush for 1,500 yards in five seasons.

2. Walter Payton

Walter Payton is a legend that at one point held the career records for  rushing yards, touchdowns, carries, yards from scrimmage, all-purpose yards, and among other categories. Payton spent his entire career with the Chicago Bears and helped led them to victory in Super Bowl XX.  

1. Jim Brown

Jim Brown set the stage for so many great African-American running backs that followed him the NFL. Brown was exceptional in his career, as a three-time MVP and nine-time Pro Bowler. Brown was in the NFL for nine seasons and led the league in rushing eight times. Simply put, Brown was the best running back in the league during his career and is the best to ever do it.