The Greatest 30 Running Backs in NFL History, Ranked
It takes a lot to be considered one of the greatest running backs of all time. You have to be fast, powerful, and agile. You have to be versatile, competitive, and have eyes like a hawk. Your touchdowns may not be as celebrated as those passed through the air, but you still have to be a key member of the offense on almost every single down. Watching a powerful running back carve through a defense is impressive and one of the most dynamic athletic moves in any sport.
Unfortunately, there's no objective way to measure who the greatest running backs are, but we compiled a list taking several factors into consideration—including personal statistics, team stats, accomplishments, post-season play, and other factors that make any National Football League player a standout.
Here's our list of the greatest 30 running backs in NFL history.
Jim Brown spent a little less than a decade playing for the Cleveland Browns between 1957 and 1965, but that was enough time to prove he's likely the greatest running back to ever play the game and one of the greatest NFL players of all time. The former fullback was an All-American at Syracuse University before becoming a number-one draft pick in 1957.
During his tenure in the league, he was a three-time MVP, was on a league championship-winning team, and was selected to the Pro Bowl every year he played. He was the rushing yards and rushing touchdown leader for many years and was selected as a member of the NFL's 50th, 75th, and 100th Anniversary all-time teams.
As a junior at Oklahoma State University, Barry Sanders had one of the most successful careers in college football history. He went on to become a unanimous All-American selection and won the Heisman Trophy before becoming a number one draft pick in the NFL by the Detroit Lions.
Sanders spent about a decade with the Lions. Although he never got to play in a Super Bowl, he did help the team win its only postseason game ever in the Super Bowl era. He was also the 1989 Rookie of the Year, the league MVP in 1997, a two-time Offensive Player of the Year, and he was selected to 10 Pro Bowls.
In high school, Walter Payton was one of the best running backs in the state of Mississippi, and today, he's considered one of the greatest football players in NFL history. He spent 12 years with the Chicago Bears and helped lead them to a Super Bowl victory. Head coach Mike Ditka called him the greatest football player he'd ever seen but an even greater human being.
Throughout his career, Payton set numerous records and won several awards. Nicknamed "Sweetness," he was the MVP in 1977 as well as the NFL Man of the Year and the Offensive Player of the Year. He was also selected to nine Pro Bowl teams. He still holds the record for the most consecutive starts by a running back. Sadly, Payton died in 1999 at the age of 45 from a rare liver disease. The NFL has kept his name alive with the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, which goes to players who spent their downtime doing charity work off the field.
Marshall Faulk was a standout college running back at San Diego State University, including being named a two-time unanimous All-American. The Indianapolis Colts drafted him in the first round in 1994, but he was even more successful with the St. Louis Rams, where he spent the last eight seasons of his career.
Faulk's Rams team was named the "Greatest Show on Turf" because they appeared in two consecutive Super Bowls, winning one. In 2000, he was the league MVP, and from 1999 to 2001, he was the Offensive Player of the Year. He was also the NFL scoring leader in 2000 and 2001 and selected to nine Pro Bowls.
Emmitt Smith played for the Dallas Cowboys from 1990 until 2002 and the Arizona Cardinals from 2002 to 2004. He still holds numerous league running back records like all-time rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and rushing attempts.
A first-round draft pick out of the University of Florida, Smith is a member of both the College Football Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame. With the Cowboys, he won three Super Bowls and a Super Bowl MVP. In 1993, he was the NFL's MVP, and in 1990, he was the Offensive Rookie of the Year. Smith was selected to eight Pro Bowl teams.
One of the more recent players on the list, LaDainian Tomlinson, spent 11 seasons in the NFL, playing mostly for the San Diego Chargers. Today, he works as an executive in the team's front office. Tomlinson was a first-round draft pick in 2001 and the NFL MVP in 2006 as well as the Offensive Player of the Year the same year.
In 2006, Tomlinson was the Walter Payton Man of the Year and won the Bert Bell Award. In 2008, he won the Bart Starr Award. For several years, he led the league in rushing yards and touchdowns, and he was named to the Pro Bowl five times. The running back still holds numerous NFL records, including the number of rushing touchdowns scored in a season and most consecutive games with a touchdown.
Adrian Peterson has been setting records since his freshman year at the University of Oklahoma, including being the first freshman to become a runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. That illustrious college career led to the Minnesota Vikings drafting him in the first round in 2007.
Technically, Peterson is still playing in the NFL, or he was as of 2021 when he was on the roster for the Tennessee Titans and the Seattle Seahawks. However, as of May 2022, he's an unsigned free agent. Peterson's accolades include being the league MVP in 2012, seven Pro Bowl selections, and being named the Offensive Player of the Year in 2012. He's also been listed as one of the 50 greatest Vikings in NFL history and holds the record for the most rushing yards in a single game.
Eric Dickerson had to wear prescription goggles throughout his career due to a vision issue, but that didn't stop him from becoming one of the top 10 running backs of all time. An All-American at Southern Methodist University, he was a first-round draft pick in 1983. Dickerson played for the Los Angeles Rams, Colts, Los Angeles Raiders, and Atlanta Falcons during his decade in the NFL.
In 1983, he was the Offensive Rookie of the year, and in 1986 he was the Offensive Player of the year. He led the league in rushing yards for four years and was selected to six Pro Bowls. Today, he still holds several NFL records, including rushing yards during a rookie season and rushing yards in a playoff game.
Gayle Sayers only spent seven seasons in the NFL and due to multiple injuries, he only played five seasons, but he left his mark on the league. Sayers played for the Bears as both a halfback and return specialist. Some say he's one of the hardest players to tackle in NFL history.
In 1965, he was the Offensive Rookie of the Year, and in 1969, the Comeback Player of the Year. He led the league in rushing yards for two seasons and was selected to four Pro Bowls. He's been listed as one of the top 100 players to ever wear a Bears uniform.
O.J. Simpson wasn't just a sensational running back but also a super-popular actor and general celebrity personality until became more known for being a murder suspect. We all know that story, so there's no need to rehash it. While he remains controversial, he still has the stats to make this list.
A Heisman Trophy winner while at the University of Southern California (USC), Simpson was the first pick in the 1969 NFL Draft, and he spent his career with the Buffalo Bills, plus a season with the San Francisco 49ers. In 1973, he was the league MVP and the NFL Offensive Player of the Year. He was also selected to five Pro Bowls and was the leader in rushing yards and touchdowns for multiple years.
The words "power" and "Earl Campbell" go hand-in-hand when you're talking about NFL running backs. A Heisman Trophy winner while at the University of Texas, Campbell spent the bulk of his career with the Houston Oilers, breaking up tackles and power through plays unlike anyone had ever seen.
This led to a 1979 MVP Award, three Offensive Player of the Year Awards, and selection to five Pro Bowls. He was the Rookie of the Year in 1978 and led the league in rushing yards and touchdowns on and off throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. Campbell also won the Bert Bell Award in 1979.
Tony Dorsett was a three-time All-American and Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Pittsburgh before becoming the second overall draft pick during the 1977 NFL Draft. He went on to spend a decade with the Cowboys and one season with the Denver Broncos.
He was the 1977 Offensive Rookie of the Year and helped lead the Cowboys to a Super Bowl win that year. He was selected for four Pro Bowls and is still one of the top 10 rushers in NFL history. He's known for being productive throughout his entire career.
Franco Harris wasn't just a standout running back. He was part of the superstar 1970s and early 1980s Pittsburgh Steelers team that won four Super Bowls. Harris, who played at Penn State University collegiately, was a huge contributor to the team's success.
He was a Super Bowl MVP, the NFL Rookie of the Year in 1972, the NFL Man of the Year in 1976, and a nine-time Pro Bowl selection. He also made one of the most famous catches in NFL playoff history, known as the "Immaculate Reception," during the AFC divisional playoff game against the Oakland Raiders in 1972. Harris is a member of the Steelers Hall of Honor and Pro Football Hall of Fame.
A two-time All-American at Oklahoma State University, Thurman Thomas is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame. He spent the bulk of his career with the Bills and made it to the Super Bowl four times, although the team lost each time.
Despite those losses, Thomas was a standout, earning the league MVP award in 1991 as well as being named the NFL Offensive Player of the Year. He was also selected to five Pro Bowls. Thomas averaged more than 1,000 rushing yards most seasons, but he was known for being a great receiver as well as one of the greatest running backs of all time.
Curtis Martin split his career between the New England Patriots and the New York Jets, but he was a standout running back for both of them, rushing for more than 1,000 yards for 10 seasons in a row. He was the 1995 Rookie of the Year and the NFL rushing yards leader in 2004.
In 2006, the year he retired, he won the Bart Starr Award. He's also a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Edgerrin James was a fourth overall draft pick in 1999, and that led to an explosive 11-year career. James, who is a member of the 10,000-yards rushing club, spent most of his career with the Colts, although he also played for the Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks.
He was the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1999 and the league rushing leader in 1999 and 2000. He was also selected to four Pro Bowls throughout his career.
Marcus Allen spent 16 seasons in the NFL and, during that time, he became one of the greatest goal-line runners to ever play the game. Maybe the greatest. A Heisman Trophy winner at USC, he was the 10th overall draft pick in 1982.
He spent his career with the Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs and was the Super Bowl MVP in 1984. Allen was selected for six Pro Bowls and was the league MVP in 1985, the Offensive Player of the Year in 1985, and the Comeback Player of the Year in 1993.
One of the older guys on the list, Jim Taylor played with the Packers for most of his career and helped lead the team to four straight NFL Championships. He was also part of the first Super Bowl-winning team.
Known as much for his trash talk as his toughness on the field, Taylor was the league MVP in 1962, as well as the league rushing yards leader and the top scorer. Throughout his career, he was selected to five Pro Bowls.
Terrell Davis isn't just considered one of the best running backs in NFL history. He's thought to be the best post-season running back of all time. The former University of Georgia standout spent six seasons with the Broncos, leading the team to two Super Bowl wins and earning himself a Super Bowl MVP.
In 1998, he was the NFL MVP, and he was the Offensive Player of the Year in both 1996 and 1998. A Pro Football Hall of Fame member today, Davis was selected to three Pro Bowls.
Running backs aren't known for spending a long time in the NFL. It's a physically punishing position that leads to a fairly early retirement. That doesn't seem to apply to Frank Gore. He spent more than 16 years in the league, mostly playing for the 49ers, and he's so well-known for his longevity that it's become an Internet meme.
Gore won the Art Rooney Award in 2016, and he was selected to six Pro Bowls. He also set many records and still holds the one for most games played by a running back, naturally. Gore is still ranked third overall for most rushing yards in the NFL.
Joe Perry played for the 49ers and Baltimore Colts throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. He was the first African-American to become an NFL MVP and was selected to three Pro Bowls.
Perry, who was known for his speed, also led the league in rushing touchdowns and yards several times during his career.
With a nickname like "The Bus," it comes as no surprise that former Steelers player Jerome Bettis became a star running back. He was known for his size which helped him power through many tackles. A first-round draft pick out of the University of Notre Dame, he helped lead the team to its first Super Bowl win in more than 20 years.
In 1993, Bettis was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and, in 2001, he was the Walter Payton Man of the Year. He was also selected to six Pro Bowls during his career.
Steve Van Buren
Steve Van Buren played in the NFL mostly during the 1940s, but he remains one of the best to ever play the game. During his senior year at Louisiana State University, he was the leading scorer in the NCAA, which led to him being the fifth overall draft pick in 1944.
Fast and powerful, Van Buren helped lead the Philadelphia Eagles to two NFL Championship wins, and he was the NFL rushing touchdown and yards leader throughout most of his career. He was also the NFL scoring leader in 1945.
John Riggins was the rare running back that played better in the latter half of his career than he did in the first. A first-round draft pick and sixth overall, he spent his career with the Jets and Washington Redskins.
During that time, he became a Super Bowl MVP, a two-time rushing touchdowns leader, and the NFL Comeback Player of the Year in 1978. He was selected to one Pro Bowl.
One of the more recent players on the list, LeSean McCoy suffered an ankle injury in high school that almost cost him his career. Thankfully for him and football fans everywhere, he overcame it.
From 2010 to 2019, he scored more touchdowns and rushed for more yards than another player in the league. He found himself on two Super Bowl-winning teams, and he was selected to six Pro Bowls.
A first-round draft pick, eighth overall, Larry Csonka spent the bulk of his career with the Miami Dolphins. Not only did he play during its perfect 17-0 season, but he helped them win two Super Bowls and was even the Super Bowl MVP.
Csonka was named the 1979 Comeback Player of the Year, although he retired the same year. Csonka was selected to five Pro Bowls.
Leroy Kelly joined the NFL in 1964, playing for the Browns and picking up where our number one running back, Jim Brown, left off. During his rookie year, he helped lead the team to an NFL Championship, and he went on to lead the league in rushing yards and touchdowns throughout the late 1960s. He was even the leading scorer in 1968.
Kelly also won the Bert Bell Award that year and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Marion Motley is yet another former Browns to make the list. He played before Jim Brown and spent time as both a running back and a linebacker. Joe Perry, another running back on the list, once called Motley the best football player he's ever seen.
Motley led the Browns to an NFL Championship win in 1950, and he was the leading rusher in the league the same year. He was selected to one Pro Bowl and also served his country in the United States Navy.
Steven Jackson was a number one draft pick in 2004 and, after that, he would go on to spend most of his career with the Rams, although he also played for the Falcons and New England Patriots. He remains the all-time leading rusher for the Rams.
Throughout his career, he was selected to three Pro Bowls, and he rushed for more than 1,000 yards for eight straight seasons. Although it's not talked about much, Jackson was a decent receiver as well.
A second-round draft out of the University of Virginia, Tiki Barber remains the New York Giants' all-time rushing and reception leader. He spent 10 seasons with the team and was selected to three Pro Bowls.
Before turning pro, Barber was the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Player of the Year and ACC Offensive Player of the Year in 1996. Upon retirement, he became a national TV host and has written several books.