Top Five Running Backs in NFL History

Barry Sanders #20, Running Back for the Detroit Lions runs the ball during the American Football Conference East game against the New England Patriots on 12 September 1993 at the Foxboro Stadium, Foxboro, Massachusetts, United States. The Lions won the game 19 - 16. (Photo by Damian Strohmeyer/Allsport/Getty Images)

The running back position is one of the most impressive positions to watch in all of football. Jukes, trucks, spins, and hurdles allow running backs to create dynamic plays each time they touch the ball. The position has developed over the years from pure downhill running to agile one cut explosions of offense. Many backs today are largely involved in the passing offense as well. While there have been many fantastic running backs in the NFL’s history, only a few can be the greatest of all-time. With over 77,000 yards combined, here are the top five running backs in NFL history.

Top Five Running Backs of All-Time

1. Barry Sanders (1989-1998)

Barry Sanders is an incredible talent. Sanders started his hall of fame career with an offensive rookie of the year award and his first pro bowl nomination. He ran for 1,470 yards and 14 touchdowns that year. Sanders would continue to demonstrate his ability to cut and accelerate for the Detroit Lions throughout his entire 10-year career. Sanders played ten seasons in the NFL and had ten pro bowl nominations. Making the pro bowl in every season your career is no easy task, but Sanders was able to do it with ease.

Sanders has the fourth-best rushing season if all-time rushing for 2,053 yards. Sanders had the third ever 2,000-yard season in NFL history. The most impressive part about this is that Sanders did this at age 29. Many running backs start to deteriorate in their late 20’s, but Sanders had his best season ever, culminating in an MVP award for Sanders. His decision to retire at age 30 shocked most, but Sanders had nothing left to prove and established himself as an all-time great running back in NFL history.

2. Adrian Peterson (2007-Present)

Adrian Peterson has had an incredible career in the NFL. Peterson entered the league in 2007 and dominated from day one. He made the pro bowl in six of his first seven seasons. Peterson had a 1,700-yard season in only his second season at age 23. Peterson had eight seasons of over 1,000 yards rushing and had over 100 touchdowns in his career. He won the MVP award in 2012 after his incredible 2,097-yard season. Peterson finished 9 yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson’s record for rushing yards in a single season.

One of Peterson’s most impressive performances came in his 2018 season with the Washington Redskins. Peterson hadn’t played a full season since 2015 and entered that season at the age of 33. He would go on to rush for over 1,000 yards at age 33 and impressed everyone in the process. Peterson showed his excellence on the field and showed that even age can’t hold back the future Hall of Famer. He has seven pro bowl nominations to go with his MVP award. Peterson is easily one of the best running backs to ever play in the NFL.

3. Walter Payton (1975-1987)

Walter Payton is the perfect football player. Payton was an incredible player and an incredible person. Payton had ten 1,000-yard seasons in his 13-year career. This included nine seasons of at least 1,300 yards. Payton dominated the NFL for an entire decade from 1976 to 1986. He had eight pro bowl nods, an MVP award in 1977, and a Super Bowl championship in 1986. Payton’s legacy expanded off the field with his foundation raising awareness for organ donations. The NFL has named the Man of the Year award after the late running back and his legacy has inspired many players around the NFL to contribute to their communities and charities. Payton had nine pro bowl nominations in his career and overall, Payton is one of the most impactful players in NFL history on and off the field.

4. Emmitt Smith (1990-2004)

Emmitt Smith had one of the best careers from a player in NFL history. Smith won three Super Bowls, an MVP award, and had eight pro bowl nominations. He is also the all-time leader in rushing yards and touchdowns. Smith made the pro bowl in each of his first six seasons. This included an offensive rookie of the year award in 1990. Smith is a gleaming example of consistency. Smith had 11 straight 1,000-yard seasons. He also had at least 900 yards in 14 of his 15 seasons. He impressively had 937 yards in his final season at age 35. Smith obtained everything there is to reach for during his career. From Super Bowls to all-time records, Smith is one of the most decorated running backs in NFL history. His 18,355 rushing yards and 164 touchdowns may never be eclipsed by another back.

5. Eric Dickerson (1983-1993)

Eric Dickerson is the owner of the best single-season rushing performance of all-time. Dickerson had 2,105 rushing yards with the Rams in 1984. He also has one of the most impressive starts to a career in NFL history. Dickerson came into the NFL like a rocket, blasting his way to 1,808 yards and 18 touchdowns in his rookie year. This led to a pro bowl nomination and a rookie of the year award. Dickerson’s 1,808-yard rookie season is still an NFL record.

Dickerson continued his dominance by rushing for his record 2,105-yard season in only his second season in the NFL. Dickerson had three seasons of at least 1,800 yards in his first four seasons. He would continue to perform at a high rate on his way to eight 1,000-yard seasons and six pro bowls. Dickerson had one of the most dominant runs in NFL history and that run is what makes him one of the best running backs in NFL history.

Honorable Mentions:

LaDainian Tomlinson (2001-2011)

MVP, five pro bowls, touchdowns in a season record, 13,684 rushing yards, 145 touchdowns.

Jim Brown (1957-1965)

NFL Champion, rookie of the year, nine Pro Bowls, 8-time NFL rushing yards leader, 12,312 rushing yards, 106 touchdowns.

Frank Gore (2005-Present)

Five pro bowls, 3rd all-time rushing yards, 15,347 rushing yards, 79 touchdowns.

Watch These Incredible Running Backs

These backs have all contributed to the evolution of the running back position. Many of the best running backs in today’s NFL have crafted their style of play from the careers of these legends. Take the opportunity to look up some of the legendary plays that mare these careers special. You will quickly see why these are the best running backs to ever play.

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