Playing running back in the NFL might be the most physically demanding job in professional sports. The job is so difficult and requires so much skill and conditioning that the men who play the position don’t normally last long. It’s not uncommon for NFL running backs to completely retire from the game after less than 10 seasons because of the toll it takes on their bodies.
We’ve rounded up the running backs who are (or were) better than any others in NFL history through the 2020 season, and our list includes several people who had short but brilliant careers. Cutting the list down was difficult and resulted in some great backs getting the ax, including current stars like Derrick Henry and Ezekiel Elliott, who may find themselves on the list with a little more time.
Take a look at our list and see if your favorite running back made the cut.
30. Tiki Barber (1997-2006)
Team: New York Giants
Notable Stats: Yards Per Rushing Attempt: 4.7; Total Yards From Scrimmage: 15,632
A three-time Pro Bowler, Tiki Barber finished his career in 2006 as the all-time leading rusher in New York Giants history. Barber is one of only a few 10,000-yard rushers who is not in the Hall of Fame. His rushing touchdown numbers aren’t too impressive and neither is his yards-per-game mark but his career mark of 4.7 yards per rushing attempt is very solid. Barber was a better receiver option than many others on this list, finishing his career with 15,632 total yards from scrimmage — which ranks him in the top 15 across all positions.
29. Chris Johnson (2008-2017)
Teams: Tennessee Titans, New York Jets, Arizona Cardinals
Notable Stats: Rushing Yards Per Attempt: 4.5; Rushing Yards Per Game: 74.2
Freakish speed made Chris Johnson a must-see player when he ran the ball for the Titans for six seasons. By the time he finished his career, he was just under the 10,000-yard mark but when you consider how short his career was that’s pretty impressive. Johnson really stands out in the numbers of rushing yards per attempt and per game, finishing with 4.5 and 74.2, respectively.
Unfortunately for him, he played on some pretty dismal teams and only got to play in a single playoff game. If he was part of a good offense, Johnson could have probably been a Hall of Famer.
28. Jamal Lewis (2000-2009)
Teams: Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns
Notable Stats: Career Rushing Yards: 10,607; Rushing Yards Per Game: 81
Another guy who had a short but memorable career was Jamal Lewis, who played his entire tenure in the physically punishing AFC North. As a rookie, Lewis won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens and went on to have a borderline Hall-of-Fame career. He finished with 10,607 career rushing yards on an outstanding average of 81 yards per game. His most incredible year came in 2003 when he rushed for 2,066 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Nearly 15 years since he last played for them, Lewis is still the all-time leading rusher in Ravens history.
27. Ricky Watters (1992-2001)
Teams: San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles, Seattle Seahawks
Notable Stats: Rushing Touchdowns: 78; Total Yards From Scrimmage: 14,891
Ricky “Running” Watters dazzled fans during his 10-season NFL career by proving himself as a dynamic rusher and pass catcher. He won his only Super Bowl with the 49ers and was voted to five Pro Bowls but somehow was never selected as an All-Pro. Watters finished his career with Hall of Fame-level numbers, including 10,643 rushing yards, 78 rushing touchdowns and 14,891 total yards from scrimmage. His career averages of 4.1 yards per carry and 73.9 rushing yards per game are nothing to sneeze at either.
26. Joe Perry (1948-1963)
Teams: San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Colts
Notable Stats: Rushing Yards Per Attempt: 5.0
Another 49ers icon, Joe “The Jet” Perry was the first black player to ever be named NFL MVP. The Hall of Famer finished his career as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher with 9,723 career yards. He was a two-time All-Pro who took the position of running back to new heights. His 5.0 yards per rushing attempt is still among the league’s all-time best marks and is equal to that of the legendary Gale Sayers.
25. Ottis Anderson (1979-1992)
Teams: St. Louis Cardinals, New York Giants
Notable Stats: Career Rushing Yards: 10,273; Rushing Touchdowns: 81
Giants legend O.J. Anderson was a two-time Super Bowl champ and made an impact right from start. He was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year for the 1979 season while playing with the St. Louis Cardinals. With his 81 career rushing touchdowns and 10,273 career rushing yards playing mostly in the nation’s top media market, it’s a wonder Anderson never made it to Canton.
24. Marshawn Lynch (2007-2019)
Teams: Buffalo Bills, Seattle Seahawks, Oakland Raiders
Notable Stats: Rushing Touchdowns: 85; Rushing Yards Per Attempt: 4.2
They don’t call him “Beast Mode” for nothing. Marshawn Lynch put together one of the best rushing careers in recent history, being named to five Pro Bowls and winning a Super Bowl. His 85 career rushing touchdowns put him among the all-time greats and coupled with his career average of 4.2 yards per carry and 10,413 career rushing yards, he makes a great case for the Hall of Fame.
His legendary 67-yard run against the New Orleans Saints in the 2011 playoffs might go down as the best single rushing play in NFL history.
23. Thurman Thomas (1988-2000)
Teams: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins
Notable Stats: Career Rushing Yards: 12,074; Total Yards From Scrimmage: 16,532
A major part of the Buffalo Bills making it to four consecutive Super Bowls in the 1990s, Thurman Thomas was elected to the Hall of Fame for his outstanding career as a dual-threat offensive player. Thomas’ touchdown numbers and yards-per-game average are middling compared with others on this list but he managed to distinguish himself on an offense that was loaded with talent. Thomas was a former NFL MVP, five-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro. He still stands at third all-time in career playoff rushing yards and racked up nearly 17,000 total yards from scrimmage.
22. John Riggins (1971-1985)
Teams: New York Jets, Washington Football Team
Notable Stats: Career Rushing Yards: 11,352; Rushing Touchdowns: 104
A touchdown machine who especially turned it on in big games, John Riggins finished his career with 104 rushing touchdowns and 11,352 rushing yards. He also won a Super Bowl as part of the Washington Football Team in 1983, being named MVP of the game. Perhaps the most stunning number in Riggins’ Hall-of-Fame career is that he was only voted to the Pro Bowl once, making him one of the more underappreciated star backs in history.
21. Fred Taylor (1998-2010)
Teams: Jacksonville Jaguars, New England Patriots
Notable Stats: Career Rushing Yards: 11,695; Rushing Yards Per Attempt: 4.6
Another rusher who turned in monster numbers but hasn’t been enshrined in Canton is Jaguars icon Fred Taylor. He was somehow only elected to one Pro Bowl and was never an All-Pro but Taylor collected 11,695 rushing yards over his career, including two seasons where he averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry. Over his career, Taylor averaged 4.6 yards per carry and holds a ton of Jaguars franchise records to this day.
His 14,079 total yards from scrimmage mean that he’d probably be much more heralded if he’d played for a team in a bigger market.
20. Edgerrin James (1999-2009)
Teams: Indianapolis Colts, Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks
Notable Stats: Career Rushing Yards: 12,246; Rushing Touchdowns: 80; Rushing Yards Per Game: 82.7
The career of Edgerrin James is very similar to his longtime AFC South rival Fred Taylor, but his numbers are slightly better across the board and he played on better teams. James finished his 11-season career with 12,246 rushing yards and 80 rushing touchdowns, both numbers that put him among the all-time rushing legends. James also benefited from playing seven seasons with Peyton Manning, who helped him rack up nearly 3,500 receiving yards as well.
19. Corey Dillon (1997-2006)
Teams: Cincinnati Bengals, New England Patriots
Notable Stats: Career Rushing Yards: 11,241; Rushing Yards Per Game: 74.9
Despite a career that included a Super Bowl win, four Pro Bowls and more than 11,000 rushing yards, Corey Dillon somehow feels underrated in the national conversation of GOAT running backs. In 10 seasons, Dillon also racked up 82 rushing touchdowns and averaged about 75 yards per game on the ground. His first seven seasons were spent with the Bengals, where he averaged about 1,400 yards from scrimmage every season, but when he joined the Patriots, he turned into a touchdown machine, scoring 39 of them in just three seasons in New England.
18. Jerome Bettis (1993-2005)
Teams: Los Angeles Rams, Pittsburgh Steelers
Notable Stats: Career Rushing Yards: 13,662; Rushing Touchdowns: 91
Speaking of touchdown machines, Steelers legend Jerome Bettis became one in the final seasons of his career, routinely punching in scores at the goal line with the greatest of ease. In a career that included a Super Bowl win, six Pro Bowls and two All-Pro selections, Bettis racked up 13,662 rushing yards and 91 rushing touchdowns, both of which are among the all-time marks.
His career averages hurt his standing on this list, but when “The Bus” was coming toward you, it was best to just move out of the way.
17. Frank Gore (2005-present)
Teams: San Francisco 49ers, Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills, New York Jets
Notable Stats: Career Rushing Yards: 15,893; Total Yards From Scrimmage: 19,867
Remember what I said about NFL rushers burning out after about 10 seasons? Frank Gore is a machine who doesn’t follow that law. From 2006-2017, Gore racked up at least 900 rushing yards in all but a single season and he’s remained a starter since then, well into his late 30s. His longevity has placed him third all-time among the league’s leading rushers with nearly 16,000 career rushing yards.
The five-time Pro Bowler also has an outstanding 4.3 yards-per-carry figure spanning that long career, including 4.6 yards per carry in 2018 at the age of 35.
16. Gale Sayers (1965-1971)
Teams: Chicago Bears
Notable Stats: Yards Per Rushing Attempt: 5.0; All-Pro Selections: 5
Despite only having five full-time seasons in the NFL, Gale Sayers achieved legendary status among football circles. Before Walter Payton came along, “The Kansas Comet” was the best rusher to ever wear a Chicago Bears uniform, dazzling fans with his bursts of speed. From 1965-1969, he averaged 5.1 yards per carry and nearly 97 yards from scrimmage per game. In those five seasons, he was selected as a first-team All-Pro every year and made the Pro Bowl four times.
Injuries led him to retire from the game before he turned 30 but he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame before he turned 35.
15. Earl Campbell (1978-1985)
Teams: Houston Oilers, New Orleans Saints
Notable Stats: Rushing Touchdowns: 74; Rushing Yards Per Game: 81.8; All-Pro Selections: 3
One of the most feared running backs in league history, Earl Campbell ran people over during his seven seasons with the Houston Oilers. In those years alone, he collected more than 8,000 rushing yards and 73 rushing touchdowns. Unfortunately, even more than with other great backs, Campbell’s body couldn’t withstand his punishing style, leading to his career to end prematurely. Still, he earned an NFL MVP title and was named an All-Pro three times in his brief tenure, leading to his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.
14. Tony Dorsett (1977-1988)
Teams: Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos
Notable Stats: Career Playoff Rushing Yards: 1,383; Total Yards From Scrimmage: 16,293
Before passing the torch to Emmitt Smith, Tony Dorsett was the most feared rusher in Cowboys history. He won a Super Bowl with the team and racked up more than 16,000 total yards from scrimmage, including 12,739 on the ground. Dorsett was brilliant in the playoffs and he still stands at fourth all-time in playoff rushing yards. The Hall of Famer loses some points for being tied at the top of all running backs ever in terms of most fumbles lost.
13. Curtis Martin (1995-2005)
Teams: New England Patriots, New York Jets
Notable Stats: Career Rushing Yards: 14,101; Rushing Touchdowns: 90; Rushing Yards Per Game: 83.9
Jets star Curtis Martin racked up more than 17,000 all-purpose yards, including 14,101 rushing yards, in a career that landed him in the Hall of Fame. Before playing in New York, Martin was a huge part of the pre-Tom Brady Patriots in 1996, who went to the Super Bowl thanks in part to his monster season. Martin finished his career averaging 83.9 rushing yards per game and with 90 rushing touchdowns under his belt. He currently sits at sixth on the NFL’s career rushing list, making him one of the true elites.
12. Marshall Faulk (1994-2005)
Teams: Indianapolis Colts, St. Louis Rams
Notable Stats: Rushing Touchdowns: 100; Total Yards From Scrimmage: 19,154
One of the most gifted all-around athletes in NFL history, Marshall Faulk proved to be a question few defenses could answer during his Hall-of-Fame career. Faulk is the only running back in NFL history to have collected more than 12,000 rushing yards and 6,000 receiving yards in a career, leading to his 19,154 total yards from scrimmage, which is in the top five in league history. He also scored 136 total touchdowns, including 100 on the ground. Faulk’s efforts earned him an MVP honor, seven Pro Bowl appearances, three All-Pro selections and a Super Bowl victory with the “Greatest Show on Turf” in St. Louis.
11. O.J. Simpson (1969-1979)
Teams: Buffalo Bills, San Francisco 49ers
Notable Stats: Career Rushing Yards: 11,236; Rushing Yards Per Attempt: 4.7; All-Pro Selections: 5
Before his name became synonymous with courtrooms and Ford Broncos, O.J. Simpson was arguably the best NFL rusher since a guy named Jim Brown. Simpson averaged 4.7 yards per carry in his career and he holds the distinction of being the only player in history to amass 2,000 rushing yards in a 14-game season. Simpson retired with 11,236 rushing yards and an astounding five All-Pro selections, showing how revered he was in the league.
10. Franco Harris (1972-1984)
Teams: Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks
Notable Stats: Career Rushing Yards: 12,120; Career Playoff Rushing Yards: 1,556; Pro Bowls: 9
A stud for the legendary Steelers teams of the 1970s, Franco Harris won four Super Bowls and was named to nine Pro Bowls in his career. Harris’ career stats are outstanding across the board, including 12,120 rushing yards, 91 rushing touchdowns and 4.1 yards per carry. His 1,556 career rushing yards in the playoffs is second all-time but unfortunately, he also fumbled more times than any other running back in league history.
9. Terrell Davis (1995-2001)
Team: Denver Broncos
Notable Stats: Rushing Yards Per Attempt: 4.6; Rushing Yards Per Game: 97.5; All-Pro Selections: 3
As you’ve seen on this list, several rushers have done amazing things in short careers, but arguably no one did more with less time than Terrell Davis. The Broncos legend helped lead the team to its first two Super Bowl wins and had 7,607 career rushing yards in just 78 career regular-season games. What’s more impressive is that Davis put up 6,400 of those yards in just four seasons. His mark of 97.5 rushing yards per game stands at third all-time, behind only Jim Brown and Barry Sanders.
If Davis’ body had held up, he could have been the best to ever play the position.
8. Adrian Peterson (2007-present)
Teams: Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals, New Orleans Saints, Washington Football Team, Detroit Lions
Notable Stats: Career Rushing Yards: 14,724; Rushing Touchdowns: 117; Rushing Yards Per Attempt: 4.6
Despite injuries that plagued him at points during his career, Adrian Peterson continues to be a starting NFL back into his mid-30s, adding to his mind-boggling career numbers. The former NFL MVP is fourth all-time in rushing touchdowns with 117 and his other numbers are equally impressive. A.P. has averaged 89.4 yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry, and he ranks in the top five for career rushing yards. Oh, and his four All-Pro selections tie him with Emmitt Smith.
7. Marcus Allen (1982-1997)
Teams: Los Angeles Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs
Notable Stats: Rushing Touchdowns: 123; Total Yards From Scrimmage: 17,654, Career Playoff Rushing Yards: 1,347
In a longer career than most rushers enjoy, L.A. football icon Marcus Allen put up incredible numbers. The offensive numbers he produced had never been seen before, as Allen became the first running back in league history to collect more than 10,000 rushing yards and 5,000 receiving yards in a career. His 123 rushing touchdowns also stood as a league record at the time he retired in 1997. Allen still sits at fifth all-time in playoff rushing yards and third in rushing touchdowns.
He also collected a Super Bowl ring, two All-Pro selections and NFL MVP honors during his stellar career.
6. LaDainian Tomlinson (2001-2011)
Teams: San Diego Chargers, New York Jets
Notable Stats: Rushing Touchdowns: 145; Total Yards From Scrimmage: 18,456
Dan Fouts and Phillip Rivers were surely great in a Chargers uniform, but if you ask many fans, the greatest player in that franchise’s history might be L.T. In a Hall-of-Fame career, LaDainian Tomlinson was like a machine in terms of productivity, amassing 18,456 total yards from scrimmage and 145 rushing touchdowns, the latter of which is second only to Emmitt Smith’s record. Tomlinson also was named NFL MVP once, played in five Pro Bowls and was an All-Pro selection three times. He was a fantasy football owner’s dream pick.
5. Eric Dickerson (1983-1993)
Teams: Los Angeles Rams, Indianapolis Colts, Los Angeles Raiders, Atlanta Falcons
Notable Stats: Career Rushing Yards: 13,259; Rushing Yards Per Game: 90.8; All-Pro Selections: 5
Eric Dickerson is one of those athletes who can say they hold a record that may never be broken. His mark of 2,105 rushing yards in a single season has been the NFL’s record since 1984. But Dickerson was hardly a one-season wonder, as he amassed more than 13,000 career rushing yards and 90 touchdowns. His career averages are sickening as well, with Dickerson averaging 4.4 yards per carry and 90.8 yards per game in 11 seasons. His yards-per-game mark still sits at fourth all-time.
4. Walter Payton (1975-1987)
Team: Chicago Bears
Notable Stats: Career Rushing Yards: 16,726; Rushing Touchdowns: 110; Total Yards From Scrimmage: 21,264; All-Pro Selections: 5
If there were a Mount Rushmore of running backs, it’d be hard to leave “Sweetness” off the rock. The Bears legend was the greatest rusher of his generation, racking up a then-record 16,726 rushing yards — which still stands at second all-time — to go along with 110 rushing touchdowns. Fumbles were a bit of an issue in the long run but the five-time All-Pro more than made up for it by amassing 21,264 total yards from scrimmage on top of a career average of 88 yards per game. Payton also won a Super Bowl, MVP honors and was named to nine Pro Bowls.
3. Jim Brown (1957-1965)
Team: Cleveland Browns
Notable Stats: Rushing Touchdowns: 106; Rushing Yards Per Attempt: 5.2; Rushing Yards Per Game: 104.3; All-Pro Selections: 8
The man who made running a football into an art form, Jim Brown’s career numbers still stand among the all-time best even though he hasn’t played a down since 1965. Where to start? Brown’s 104.3 yards-per-game average is still the NFL’s all-time mark and likely always will be and his 5.2 yards-per-carry mark also outpaces nearly all other rushers. Brown ended his career with 12,312 rushing yards and 106 touchdowns, the latter of which still stands at sixth all-time. And in case you doubted his popularity among fans and the media, Brown was named a Pro Bowler in all nine seasons he played and was a first-team All-Pro pick in eight of them.
2. Barry Sanders (1989-1998)
Team: Detroit Lions
Notable Stats: Career Rushing Yards: 15,269; Rushing Touchdowns: 99; Rushing Yards Per Attempt: 5.0; Rushing Yards Per Game: 99.8
Maybe more than any other player in NFL history, Barry Sanders’ career remains a massive “What if … ” because he walked away while he still had plenty left in the tank. In just 10 NFL seasons, the Lions icon put up amazing numbers, including 15,269 rushing yards and 99 rushing touchdowns. Like Jim Brown, Sanders was elected to the Pro Bowl in every season he played and it makes sense when you consider he averaged 5.0 yards per carry and 99.8 rushing yards per game, the latter of which sits at second all-time. Put simply, Sanders was a freak that no defenses wanted anything to do with.
1. Emmitt Smith (1990-2004)
Teams: Dallas Cowboys, Arizona Cardinals
Notable Stats: Career Rushing Yards: 18,355; Rushing Touchdowns: 164; Total Yards From Scrimmage: 21,579
Like Walter Payton and Jim Brown before him, Emmitt Smith now holds virtually every major record a running back can attain — and it doesn’t look likely he’ll be dethroned any time soon. Smith was a key part of the ’90s Cowboys team that won three Super Bowls and his popularity led him to eight Pro-Bowl selections. Smith finished his amazing career with 18,355 rushing yards, 164 rushing touchdowns and 1,586 playoff rushing yards, all of which are still the best in league history more than 15 years after he last suited up.
His yards-per-game and yards-per-carry marks aren’t as thrilling as others at the top of this list but Smith stood out on some fantastic teams and became one of the most beloved players in league history.