Right from its inception, the football community has given birth to many talented players, including the greatest NFL running backs that have ever graced the football field. Since the league started in the year 1920, we have seen good players, bad players, as well as great players who have made marks for themselves on the field in various positions one of which is the running back. The role of a running back is not an easy job. Not only that it is physically demanding, but it also requires a special ability, toughness, fiery leadership, and undivided attention from the player.
In this post, we’ve rounded up 15 talented greatest NFL running backs who have entertained sports lovers and the world at large with their superlative on-field performances. Though many players deserve to make this list, we have room for the best 15. Take a look and see if your favorite player made the cut.
Top 15 Greatest NFL Running Backs Of All Time In The History Of NFL
1. Jim Brown
Team: Cleveland Browns (1957 – 1965)
To date, Jim Brown arguably remains one the most spectacular running back the NFL has ever had. His spectacular 104.3 yards-per-game average still stands as the NFL’s all-time mark despite investing only nine productive years in the American football league.
The 6 feet 2 inches St. Simons, Georgia-born legend started playing the oval shape game in the year 1957 and eventually bid it goodbye in 1965 after a flourishing nine-season that fetched him the best player title.
Originally born James Nathaniel Brown, the star represented the Cleveland Browns all through his career. Legendary Jim also made the Pro Bowl, won the MVPs title three times and was also an All-Pro eight times.
2. Emmitt Smith
Teams: Dallas Cowboys (1990–2002); Arizona Cardinals (2003–2004)
Yet another of the greatest NFL running backs, Emmitt Smith is known for his superlative expertise on the field, especially in both rushing yards and touchdowns. He joined forces with other Arizona Cardinals’ players for only two seasons and later migrated to the renowned Dallas Cowboys, where he invested a productive 13 seasons for them.
Though he is no longer in the game, Emmitt who is also a graduate of the University of Florida is respected as one of the key talents who played influential roles in pushing the Cowboys to three Super Bowls games.
On his own part, he snagged an MVP win as well as eight Pro Bowl selections. A native of Florida, Smith garnered 18,355 rushing yards while his career lasted for more than a decade.
3. Tony Dorsett
Teams: Dallas Cowboys (1977–1987); Denver Broncos (1988)
From the time Tony was picked in the 1st round of the 1977 Draft by the Dallas Cowboys to the year 1988 when he moved to Denver Broncos, he was nothing short of stunning. While his stint at the Cowboys lasted, he was the most feared rusher as well as an exceptional running back who earned over 16,000 total yards, including 12,739 on the ground.
A native of Rochester, Pennsylvania who had his collegiate career at the University of Pittsburgh, Tony, in his 12 years in the football league featured in four Pro Bowls.
Dorsett retired from football while with the Denver Broncos in 1988 after suffering a torn left knee ligaments during a training camp. A look at his NFL career stat shows he recorded 398 receptions, 13 receiving touchdowns, 3,554 receiving, and 4.3 yards, per carry, making him one of the greatest running backs in the NFL history.
4. LaDainian Tomlinson
Teams: San Diego Chargers (2001–2009); New York Jets (2010–2011)
Tomlinson’s first professional football stint was with the Chargers, where he featured in eight seasons with at least 1,500 yards from scrimmage and 1,100 yards rushing. While his 11-season career lasted, LaDainian led his team in rushing touchdowns thrice and rushing twice.
He eventually became an All-Pro selection thrice, featured in five Pro Bowls and was also named the FL MVP in the year 2006 with a record-breaking 28 touchdowns. Third all-time with 162 touchdowns, the legendary running back’s 13,684 rushing yards still secures the sixth position while his spectacular 145 rushing touchdowns are second all-time.
5. Thurman Thomas
Teams: Buffalo Bills (1988–1999); Miami Dolphins (2000)
Thurman as one of the greatest NFL running backs holds the record as a two-time All-Pro, a five-time Pro Bowler, as well as an NFL MVP (1991). The all-purpose running back was also a brilliant receiver with 4,458 receiving yards and is still tenth all-time with 16,532 yards from scrimmage although his Buffalo Bill team couldn’t win the Super Bowl after making it to the highly-competitive game four times.
Following a productive career, Thurman has been inducted into numerous halls of fame.
6. O.J. Simpson
Teams: Buffalo Bills (1969–1977); San Francisco 49ers (1978–1979)
Although this former football player is controversial now, at some point in his life, O.J was a great player and he still remains one of the greatest NFL running backs. He launched his professional career in the year 1969 when he was picked in the first round of that year’s draft by Buffalo Bills football team.
The convicted kidnapper and robber stands out as the only NFL player to garner 2,000 rushing yards in a 14-game season in football. After averaging 4.7 yards per carry, O.J Simpson hung his boots with a commendable 5 All-Pro selections and 11,236 rushing yards.
7. Walter Payton
Team: Chicago Bears (1975–1987)
Payton wore the No. 34 jersey for the Chicago Bears football team for more than 10 seasons. He was picked as the 4th pick in the 1975 league Draft and subsequently became the league’s all-time leader in all-purpose yards and rushing yards at the peak of his career. The record, was, however, broken in the 2002 season by Emmitt Smith.
The Columbia High School graduate was inducted in 2010 into the inaugural class of the Black College Football Hall of Fame, four years after he was formally admitted into the College Football Hall of Fame. While his productive career lasted, the 5 feet 10 inches footballer who died on November 1, 1999, earned the following scores – Receptions: 492, Yards per carry: 4.4, Receiving touchdowns: 15, Rushing yards: 16,726, Receiving yards: 4,538, and Rushing touchdowns: 110.
8. Ottis Anderson
Teams: St. Louis Cardinals (1979–1986); New York Giants (1986–1992)
Florida-born Anderson was one of the greatest NFL running backs. He started out at St. Louis Cardinals in the year 1979. In College, he became a record breaker when he rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a senior. Among other honors, he was a two-time Super Bowl champion (XXI, XXV) and NFL Comeback Player of the Year in 1989.
In 1980, Ottis was named Second-team All-Pro (1980) and First-team All-Pro in 1979. He was placed seventh in rushing TDs when formally ended his career.
9. Le’Veon Bell
Teams; Pittsburgh Steelers (2013–2018); New York Jets (2019–present)
Unlike some of the other greatest NFL running backs in this list, Bell is still active in the game of American football. The 6 feet 3 inches tall player was the second running back to be picked at the 2013 NFL Draft after signing a four-year contract worth $4.12 million with the Steelers, where he gained some outstanding records such as the Most rushing yards in a playoff game (170, 2016).
Le’Veon Bell played in the Pro Bowl thrice (2014, 2016, 2017). So far, he boasts wonderful records in his professional career including 5,336 (Rushing yards), 2,660 (receiving yards) and more. The star player is currently with New York Jets.
10. Barry Sanders
Team: Detroit Lions (1989–1998)
Yet another talented running back, Sanders decided to end his career in 1998 after gaining 2,921 receiving yards, and 15,269 rushing yards. He also achieved Pro Bowl status in all the seasons he featured from 1989 to 1998.
Among other honors, the footballer was equally named second-team All-Pro four times, All-NFC from 1989 – 1992 and 1994 -1997.
11. Marcus Allen
Teams: Los Angeles Raiders (1982–1992); Kansas City Chiefs (1993–1997)
A Pro Football Hall of Fame and College Football Hall of Fame inductee, Marcus Allen has envious titles under his belt. Being one of the most respected running backs of all time, he broke several records during his active years and eventually waved goodbye to football after earning 12,243 Rushing yards.
The University of Southern California graduate and Super Bowl MVP (XVIII) also won other titles such as NFL rushing yards leader (1985), NFL Rookie of the Year (1982), to name but a few.
12. Franco Harris
Teams: Pittsburgh Steelers (1972–1983); Seattle Seahawks (1984)
One of the greatest NFL running backs, Harriss professional career lasted for 13 years and it was incredible all through. A Hall of Famer inductee, he won four Super Bowl and also played at the Pro Bowl in his first nine seasons.
Some of his career highlights include NFL 1970s All-Decade Team, and NFL Man of the Year (1976). Before his retirement in the year 1984, Franco gained 9 Receiving touchdowns and other amazing scores.
13. Eric Dickerson
Teams: Los Angeles Rams (1983–1987); Indianapolis Colts (1987–1991); Los Angeles Raiders (1992); Atlanta Falcons (1993)
Dickerson is the only man on our list who represented more than two teams in the league. The Sealy, Texas-born footballer still ranks eighth all-time in rushing yards even though he struggled to maintain his worth towards the end of his career.
Eric featured in the Pro Bowl six times and was one of the best in the NFL in his era. The 1983 draftee recorded massive and impressive scores in the course of his career.
14. Earl Campbell
Teams: Houston Oilers (1978–1984); New Orleans Saints (1984–1985)
Born Earl Christian Campbell, this player holds the record as one of the greatest NFL running backs. During his active years, he was well-loved by many people due to his ability to break tackles, his running style, and aggressiveness on the field.
The Texas-born player won the Super Bowl five times and also earned himself several titles/ awards. Campbell retired from football in the year 1985 with impressive records.
15. Marshall Faulk
Teams: Indianapolis Colts (1994–1998); St. Louis Rams (1999–2006)
The last but not the least is Louisiana native Marshall Faulk. He invested 12 seasons for the various teams he represented in the league. To his credit, he made it to the Super Bowl just once and then had a great time at the Pro Bowl seven good times.
In 2000, the football star received the title of the league’s touchdowns leader and the Most Valuable Player, to the excitement of his fans. A look at his career time shows he earned impressive records as a player in receiving touchdowns (6,875), rushing yards (12, 279), rushing touchdowns (100), and carry per yard (4.3), becoming one of the greatest NFL running backs.