The Best Running Backs of All Time

Emmitt Smith or Barry Sanders: Who Was the Better Player?

It’s June, so naturally we’re ever so close to the NFL Season but still so far away that news is sparse. To help fill the void, I decided to look at some all-time selections at six different positions—Quarterback, Running Back, Wide Receiver, Tight End, Defense and Coaching. Over the next six weeks, I’ll be giving my Top 10 at each, continuing today with Running Backs.

Before we jump in, I thought I’d share a bit about this process. First, I was born in 1981 and have been watching football since the mid-to-late 1980s. The NFL has been around a lot longer, but in order to make sure bias doesn’t play too big a role in choices, I’ve limited this look back to the last 41 years, since 1980. Second, this is a subjective list. While I consider stats, performance and metrics, I’m the one doing the evaluation, so ultimately it’s my list. I encourage you to share your own thoughts and criticisms each week in the comments.

Now, on to the list. The group will appear in ascending order, beginning with one or two each week that just missed. On to this week’s list!

Terrell Davis atop list of greatest Broncos running backs ever

Just Missed: Terrell Davis (Denver Broncos, 1995-2001)

Stats: 7,607 rushing yards, 60 touchdowns; 169 receptions, 1,280 yards, five touchdowns
About: Davis is one of my all-time favorite players, a great piece of the Denver Broncos’ back-to-back Super Bowl winning teams. Davis came in as a Sixth-Round draft pick and made an immediate impact. After a great rookie year, Davis went on to be the focal point of the Broncos 1996 team, and then a star for the 1997 and 1998 teams that won the Super Bowl. He even had a 2,000-yard season, rushing for 2,008 yards and 21 TDs in 1998. The year after, Davis tore his ACL and was never the same as his career wound down. Still, he was a three-time Pro Bowl selection and an NFL and Super Bowl MVP. He did enough to earn a bid to the Hall of Fame, and I loved watching him play. This was the toughest omission for me on this list.

As the Bills prepare to retire Thurman Thomas' number, Hall of Famers  reflect on his rightful place in 'the legacy of 34' – The Athletic

10. Thurman Thomas (Buffalo Bills 1998-1999, Miami Dolphins 2000)

Stats: 12,074 rushing yards, 65 touchdowns; 472 receptions, 4,458 yards, 23 touchdowns
About: Thomas was a key cog for the Bills teams that made the Super Bowl four years in a row. He was a talented runner and receiver, making the Pro Bowl five times and earning an NFL MVP Award. He was a big part of the Bills’ success, sitting at No. 16 on the NFL’s all time rushing leader list. That’s one of the reasons he made the Hall of Fame and made this list. As I said with Jim Kelly last week, I think the stars from those Bills teams are under-rated because of their lack of Super Bowl titles.

Edgerrin James Once Again A Pro Football Hall Of Fame Nominee

9. Edgerrin James (Indianapolis Colts, 199-2005, Arizona Cardinals, 2006-2008, Seattle Seahawks, 2009)

Stats: 12,246 rushing yards, 80 touchdowns; 433 receptions, 3,364 yards, 11 touchdowns
About: James is one of the under-rated offensive weapons that thrived with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. James played for three NFL teams, but it was his stint with the Colts that really defined his career, as he rushed for nearly 9,226 yards during those seven seasons. He led the NFL in rushing his first two seasons, making the Pro Bowl four times as he punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame. He had a couple productive years for Arizona after he left the Colts, too. James sits at No. 13 on the NFL’s All Time Rushing Leaders list. He was a powerful force in the backfield during the height of his career, landing on this list.

52: Eric Dickerson | The Top 100: NFL's Greatest Players (2010) | NFL Films  - YouTube

8. Eric Dickerson (Los Angeles Rams, 1983-1987, Indianapolis Colts, 1987-1991, Los Angeles Raiders, 1992, Atlanta Falcons, 1993)

Stats: 13,259 rushing yards, 90 touchdowns; 281 receptions, 2,137 yards, six touchdowns
About: Dickerson played for four different NFL teams during his Hall of Fame career, but he’s best known for his time with the Rams. Dickerson was a force on the ground, rushing for more than 1,800 yards three times, and rushing for 2,105 yards during his second season in 1984. Dickerson was traded to the Colts during his fifth season and was never quite the same in his other stops. But he finished as a six-time Pro Bowl selection and sits as No. 9 all time on the Rushing Leader list and No. 13 all time on the Rushing Touchdown list.

Steelers Throwback Thursday: Jerome Bettis' final Steel City run - Behind  the Steel Curtain

7. Jerome Bettis (Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams, 1992-1995, Pittsburgh Steelers, 1996-2005)

Stats: 13,662 rushing yards, 91 touchdowns; 200 receptions, 1,449 yards, three touchdowns
About: Bettis, known as The Bus during his playing days, began his career with the Rams, but he’s best known for his years on the Steelers, which culminated with a Super Bowl title in his final season. Bettis was a powerful runner who churned out 10,571 yards in his decade with the Steelers. He ranks as No. 11 on the all time Rushing Touchdown list, tied with Steeler great Franco Harris, and No. 8 on the all time Rushing Yardage Leader list. He was a six-time Pro Bowl selection and a member of the Hall of Fame. He was a classy guy to watch compete and he’s had a great second career as an analyst.

Curtis Martin: New York is rallying in the face of coronavirus

6. Curtis Martin (New England Patriots, 1995-1997, New York Jets, 1998-2005)

Stats: 14,101 rushing yards, 90 touchdowns; 484 receptions, 3,329 yards, 10 touchdowns
About: Martin was a powerful and productive runner who dominated the AFC East for 11 seasons. He began his career with the Patriots, even going to the Super Bowl with the team in 1996, where they lost to the Green Bay Packers. Later, he followed former Patriots’ Head Coach Bill Parcells to the Jets, where he powered some good teams for Gang Green, including going to the AFC Championship Game. Martin was always productive, rushing for 10,302 yards in eight seasons with the Jets. He’s tied with Dickerson at No. 13 on the all time Rushing Touchdown list and sits at No. 6 all time on the Rushing Yardage Leader list. It was that heart and production, rushing for at least 1,000 yards in his first 10 seasons, that earned him five Pro Bowl selections and a bid to the Hall of Fame.

Was Marshall Faulk to Rams for draft picks the best NFL trade ever?

5. Marshall Faulk (Indianapolis Colts, 1994-1998, St. Louis Rams, 1999-2005)

Stats: 12,279 rushing yards, 100 touchdowns; 767 receptions, 6,875 yards, 36 touchdowns
About: Faulk was a part of the Greatest Show on Turf for the Rams, which won the Super Bowl in 2000. He was the ultimate weapon, first for the Colts and then for the Rams, where he spent a number of great seasons. He was a strong runner, sitting at No. 12 on the all-time NFL Rushing Yardage Leader List and No. 8 on the all time Rushing Touchdown list. He also caught 767 passes. He was a seven-time Pro Bowl selection, a Super Bowl Champion and won an NFL MVP Award, all of which contributed to his selection to the Hall of Fame. He was a fun player to watch and, in a lot of ways, the heart of that powerful Rams’ offense.

Adrian Peterson: Son's death is 'devastating'

4. Adrian Peterson (Minnesota Vikings, 2007-2016, New Orleans Saints, 2017, Arizona Cardinals, 2017, Washington Football Team, 2018-2019, Detroit Lions, 2020)

Stats: 14,820 rushing yards, 118 touchdowns; 301 receptions, 2,466 yards, six touchdowns
About: Peterson has become a journeyman to end his career, showing his enduring power as a runner with brief stops in Arizona, Washington and Detroit. He may finally be done, and if he is he’ll always be remembered for what he did with the Vikings, including being a running back who made a miraculously short return from major injury. He rushed for 11,747 yards and 97 touchdowns in 10 seasons with the Vikings. He never won a Super Bowl, but he is a seven-time Pro Bowl selection and was an NFL MVP winner. He sits as No. 5 all time on the NFL Rush Yardage Leader list and No. 4 all time on the Rushing Touchdown list. He’s a surefire Hall of Famer once he becomes eligible.

Dallas Cowboys | Official Site of the Dallas Cowboys

3. Emmitt Smith (Dallas Cowboys 1990-2002, Arizona Cardinals, 2003-2004)

Stats: 18,355 rushing yards, 164 touchdowns; 515 receptions, 3,224 yards, 11 touchdowns
About: Smith was part of a trio of Cowboys who led the offense to three Super Bowl titles, joining quarterback Troy Aikman and receiver Michael Irvin. It’s quite possible Smith was the best of the three, and certainly one of the best to ever play the position. He held on for two years at the end with the Cardinals, but he is best known for his 13 seasons as a driving force in the Cowboys’ offense, where he rushed for 17,153 yards and 153 touchdowns. He sits as the all time Rushing Yardage and Rushing Touchdown leader, and I doubt either mark will be broken. He was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection and an NFL MVP winner, earning his place in the Hall of Fame. Despite his gaudy numbers, I think he’s somewhat under-rated. I loved watching Smith run for the Cowboys.

Chargers News: HoF RB LaDainian Romlinson turns 41 - Bolts From The Blue

2. LaDainian Tomlinson (San Diego Chargers, 2001-2009, New York Jets, 2010-2011)

Stats: 13,684 rushing yards, 145 touchdowns; 624 receptions, 4,772 yards, 17 touchdowns
About: Tomlinson was a prodigious runner and electric receiver. He finished his career with the Jets, but he’s best remembered for his time with the Chargers. He rushed for 12,490 yards and 138 touchdowns in just nine seasons. As a Broncos’ fan, I dreaded playing him because LDT was always great at finding the end zone. He was a five-time Pro Bowl selection and earned an NFL MVP Award. He’s in the Hall of Fame and should be remembered for the dominating style he had on the field and the eye-popping numbers he produced. He’s No. 2 on the all time Rushing Touchdown list and No. 7 on the all time Rushing Yardage leader list.

The 5 best things about Barry Sanders' most iconic run - Pride Of Detroit

1. Barry Sanders (Detroit Lions, 1989-1998)

Stats: 15,269 rushing yards, 99 touchdowns; 352 receptions, 2,921 yards, 10 touchdowns
About: Sanders only played 10 seasons, toiling away for middling Lions teams that didn’t have great post-season success. There are guys that played longer, and guys that put up mor gaudy career numbers, but no one that was as much fun to watch as Sanders. He was electric, and had he chosen to play longer I have no doubt he’d hold every rushing record imaginable. He made the Pro Bowl each of his 10 Seasons, was an NFL MVP, had a 2,000-yard rushing season in 1997 and led the league in rushing four times. He made the Hall of Fame easily and is probably among the first backs thought of by ever generation when you ask who is the greatest of all time. He is No. 4 all time on the Rushing Yardage list and No. 10 for Rushing Touchdowns, but for me he’s No. 1 among those I’ve seen play the position.

Matthew Fox is a graduate of the Radio, Television and Film program at Biola University, and a giant nerd. He spends his free time watching movies, TV, and obsessing about football. He is a member of the FSWA. You can find him @knighthawk7734 on Twitter and as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast.

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