The 20 Best NFL Running Backs of All Time

Best NFL Running Backs of All Time

When it comes to the history of the National Football League (NFL), there have been countless running backs who have left an indelible mark on the game. These exceptional athletes possess a unique blend of speed, agility, power, and football acumen that sets them apart from their peers. In this article, we will delve into the lives and careers of the top 10 NFL running backs of all time, exploring their remarkable accomplishments and the lasting impact they have had on the sport.

The 20 Best NFL Running Backs of All Time

Jim Brown: A Force of Nature

During the 1950s and 1960s, Jim Brown reigned supreme as the most dominant running back in the league. Standing at an imposing 6 feet 2 inches and weighing 230 pounds, Brown possessed an unparalleled combination of physicality and power. His sheer strength and determination made him an unstoppable force on the field, often bulldozing through multiple defenders to reach the end zone. Off the field, Brown also made his mark as a civil rights activist and Hollywood actor, cementing his legacy as a true force of nature.

Walter Payton: Sweetness Personified

Walter Payton, affectionately known as “Sweetness,” embodied the very essence of what it means to be a running back. With his remarkable versatility and longevity, Payton’s impact on the game was nothing short of extraordinary. Throughout his illustrious career, he shattered numerous records, including becoming the all-time leading rusher at the time of his retirement. Payton’s iconic running style, characterized by his ability to break tackles and his unmatched determination, solidified his status as one of the greatest running backs to ever grace the gridiron.

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Barry Sanders: The Elusive Wizard

When it comes to agility and quickness, few running backs can rival the mesmerizing skills of Barry Sanders. With lightning-fast feet and jaw-dropping juke moves, Sanders had a unique ability to leave defenders grasping at thin air. Despite his relatively short career, which ended prematurely, Sanders managed to accumulate an astonishing number of rushing yards and highlight-reel plays. His elusive running style and ability to change direction on a dime made him a nightmare for opposing defenses.

Emmitt Smith: The All-Time Leading Rusher

Emmitt Smith’s name is synonymous with greatness in the world of NFL running backs. His remarkable consistency and durability propelled him to become the all-time leading rusher in NFL history, a feat that still stands to this day. Smith’s contributions to the success of the Dallas Cowboys during the 1990s cannot be overstated, as he played a key role in the team’s three Super Bowl victories. Known for his workhorse mentality and ability to grind out tough yards, Smith’s impact on the game is undeniable.

LaDainian Tomlinson: Total Package

LaDainian Tomlinson, often referred to as LT, was the epitome of a dual-threat running back. Equally adept at running the ball and catching passes out of the backfield, Tomlinson’s versatility made him a nightmare for opposing defenses. Throughout his career, he set numerous records, including the single-season record for touchdowns. Tomlinson’s style and grace on the field were matched only by his humility and sportsmanship, making him a beloved figure in the NFL community.

Adrian Peterson: Pure Power and Speed

Adrian Peterson’s running style can only be described as explosive. With a combination of raw power and breakaway speed, Peterson possessed an unrivaled ability to leave defenders in his wake. Despite enduring significant injuries throughout his career, he consistently produced remarkable performances, often carrying his team on his back. Peterson’s relentless determination and comeback from adversity exemplify the resilience of a true champion.

Eric Dickerson: The Long Strider

Eric Dickerson, with his long strides and breakaway speed, revolutionized the running back position. His rookie season in 1983 remains legendary, as he shattered the single-season rushing record with an astonishing 2,105 yards—a record that still stands today. Dickerson’s unique running form, characterized by his upright posture and fluid motion, set him apart from his contemporaries. His ability to break free for long runs and leave defenders in his dust solidified his place among the greatest running backs of all time.

Gale Sayers: Elegance in Motion

Though his career was tragically cut short due to injury, Gale Sayers left an indelible mark on the NFL with his elegance and grace on the field. In his relatively short time in the league, Sayers showcased electrifying open-field moves that mesmerized fans and left opponents in awe. He possessed an innate ability to make defenders miss with effortless cuts and quick bursts of acceleration. Sayers’ memorable performances and highlight-reel plays continue to captivate football enthusiasts to this day.

Marshall Faulk: Versatility Redefined

Marshall Faulk redefined the role of the running back with his exceptional versatility and football intelligence. As a pioneer of the dual-threat running back position, he excelled as both a rusher and a receiver. Faulk was a vital part of “The Greatest Show on Turf,” the high-powered St. Louis Rams offense that dominated the late 1990s and early 2000s. His exceptional receiving prowess, coupled with his deep understanding of the game, made him a nightmare for opposing defenses.

Earl Campbell: The Tyler Rose

Earl Campbell’s bruising running style struck fear into the hearts of defenders. With his imposing physicality and relentless determination, he consistently punished would-be tacklers on his way to the end zone. Campbell’s impact was felt throughout his career with the Houston Oilers, where he established himself as one of the most dominant running backs of his era. His punishing runs and ability to impose his will on the opposition left an indelible mark on the game.

O.J. Simpson: The Juice

O.J. Simpson was a true trailblazer on the football field, known for his exceptional speed and elusiveness. His record-breaking seasons in the 1970s cemented his status as one of the greatest running backs of his era. Simpson’s ability to outrun defenders and make explosive plays became his trademark. While his post-football life has been marred by controversy, there is no denying the impact he made during his playing career.

Marcus Allen: Super Bowl Hero

Marcus Allen’s versatility and ability to rise to the occasion on the biggest stage set him apart from his peers. He possessed a unique skill set that allowed him to excel as both a rusher and a receiver. Allen’s historic performance in Super Bowl XVIII, where he showcased his ability to both run and catch the ball, earned him MVP honors. Throughout his career, he consistently produced at a high level, leaving an indelible mark on the game.

Tony Dorsett: Breakaway Speed

Tony Dorsett was a true game-breaker, known for his explosive runs and breathtaking speed. He possessed the ability to turn any play into a highlight-reel moment with his breakaway speed and elusiveness. Dorsett’s accomplishments spanned from his collegiate success at the University of Pittsburgh, where he won the Heisman Trophy, to his remarkable career with the Dallas Cowboys. His contributions to the team’s success, including a Super Bowl victory, solidify his place among the all-time greats.

Jerome Bettis: The Bus

Jerome Bettis, aptly nicknamed “The Bus,” was a powerful and determined running back who left an indelible mark on the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise. Known for his sheer power and ability to plow through defenders, Bettis was a force to be reckoned with on the field. His iconic career with the Steelers was highlighted by his emotional Super Bowl victory, where he helped lead the team to glory. Bettis’ physicality and unwavering determination endeared him to fans and solidified his status as one of the best running backs of his generation.

Curtis Martin: Consistency Defined

Curtis Martin may have been an underrated figure in the realm of NFL running backs, but his greatness cannot be overlooked. Known for his quiet demeanor and humble nature, Martin consistently produced outstanding performances throughout his career. His longevity and durability allowed him to accumulate impressive rushing yards and touchdowns, leaving an indelible mark on multiple teams, most notably the New England Patriots and the New York Jets. Martin’s consistency and unwavering dedication to the game define his legacy.

Thurman Thomas: Dynamic Dual Threat

Thurman Thomas was a dynamic and versatile running back, excelling not only as a rusher but also as a receiver out of the backfield. His ability to contribute in both aspects of the game made him a valuable asset for the Buffalo Bills during their successful run in the 1990s. Thomas played a pivotal role in the team’s four consecutive Super Bowl appearances, showcasing his versatility as a runner, pass-catcher, and blocker. His consistent production throughout his career solidified his place among the elite running backs of his era.

Franco Harris: Immaculate Reception

Franco Harris will forever be remembered for his clutch performances and legendary playoff moments. The iconic “Immaculate Reception” in the 1972 playoffs, where Harris caught a deflected pass and turned it into a game-winning touchdown, epitomizes his ability to rise to the occasion. Harris had a remarkable career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, displaying consistency and longevity. His contributions to the team’s success, including four Super Bowl victories, established him as a key figure in the franchise’s history.

Terrell Davis: Playoff Dominance

Terrell Davis may have had a relatively short prime due to injuries, but his impact on the game cannot be overlooked. In the postseason, Davis was virtually unstoppable, delivering stellar performances and leading the Denver Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowl victories. His ability to dominate in the playoffs, coupled with his remarkable rushing statistics, solidified his place among the greatest running backs of all time. Davis’ playoff dominance remains a testament to his exceptional talent and determination.

Jim Thorpe: A Trailblazer’s Legacy

Jim Thorpe’s legacy extends far beyond the realm of football. As a multisport athlete and Olympic champion, Thorpe made significant contributions to the early years of professional football. He showcased exceptional skills and athleticism as a running back, leaving an indelible mark on the game. Thorpe’s historical significance as one of the pioneering figures in professional football cannot be overstated, making him an integral part of its rich tapestry.

Le’Veon Bell: The Patient Runner

Le’Veon Bell’s unique running style sets him apart from other running backs. Known for his exceptional patience and vision, Bell would patiently wait behind the line of scrimmage, allowing his blocks to develop before bursting through the gaps. This distinctive running approach, coupled with his dual-threat ability as a receiver, made Bell a formidable weapon for the Pittsburgh Steelers during his prime. His impactful seasons and ability to contribute in multiple facets of the game make him a noteworthy addition to the list of the best NFL running backs.


In celebrating the greatness of the top 10 NFL running backs of all time, we are reminded of the enduring impact they have had on the game. From the sheer power and physicality of Jim Brown to the versatility and longevity of Walter Payton, each running back on this list has left an indelible mark on the sport. Whether it’s Barry Sanders’ elusive wizardry, Emmitt Smith’s consistent production, or LaDainian Tomlinson’s total package of skills, these athletes have redefined the running back position and set the standard for future generations.


Q: What made Jim Brown a force of nature?

A: Jim Brown’s dominance in the 1950s and 1960s, unmatched physicality, power, and his impact on and off the field set him apart as one of the greatest NFL running backs.

Q: What were Walter Payton’s career achievements?

A: Walter Payton’s career was marked by versatility, longevity, and record-breaking achievements, making him an iconic figure in NFL history.

Q: What made Barry Sanders the elusive wizard?

A: Barry Sanders was known for his mind-boggling agility, quickness, legendary jukes, spin moves, and a stellar career that was cut short.

Q: How did Emmitt Smith become the all-time leading rusher?

A: Emmitt Smith’s consistency, durability, and his key role in the success of the Dallas Cowboys contributed to him becoming the all-time leading rusher in the NFL.

Q: What made LaDainian Tomlinson the total package?

A: LaDainian Tomlinson’s dual-threat ability as a runner and receiver, record-setting touchdown machine, and style and grace on the field made him one of the best NFL running backs.

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