It’s a question that’s no doubt been posed at every sports bar, football stadium and fantasy league meeting across the land. Who is the best running back of all time? Well, based on the career totals of rushing yards for each player, we’ve come up with a list of 40 that would easily walk – or more accurately, run – into any NFL team…
40. Jim Taylor – 8,597 total rushing yards
Renowned for his imposing frame and aggressive running style, Jim Taylor spent most of his career with the Green Bay Packers. His most successful period came in the early ’60s when he rushed for more than 1,000 yards in five consecutive seasons. Taylor was also a vital part of the team’s three NFL Championship-winning line-ups.
39. Terry Allen – 8,614
Terry Allen was considered past his best when the Washington Redskins signed him as a free agent in 1995. Yet the former Minnesota Vikings star went on to amass an impressive 1,353 yards and 21 touchdowns the following season and enjoyed a total of five years at FedExField. You may be surprised, then, to learn that he was only selected for the Pro Bowl on one occasion.
38. Ahman Green – 9,205
Ahman Green cemented his place in the Green Bay Packers’ record books in 2009 when he overtook Jim Taylor for the highest number of rushing yards. He also enjoyed a total of six 1,000-yard seasons with the franchise, who signed him from the Seattle Seahawks at the turn of the century. Green’s early years with the team also resulted in four Pro Bowl selections in a row.
37. Earl Campbell – 9,407
Earl Campbell had quite the start to his Houston Oilers career. Yes, he was crowned both MVP – Most Valuable Player – and Rookie of the Year in his first season with the franchise. And the running back also surpassed the 1,300-yard mark in all but one of his six full years at the Houston Astrodome. Sadly, injury cut short his glittering career in 1985.
36. Shaun Alexander – 9,453
Shaun Alexander broke all kinds of records during his stint with the Seattle Seahawks in the ‘00s. He scored a remarkable 73 rushing touchdowns within the space of just four seasons. And in 2005 the running back was crowned the league’s MVP having guided the franchise to their first ever Super Bowl. If his career hadn’t been dogged by injuries, Alexander may well have achieved even more.
35. Chris Johnson – 9,651
Chris Johnson almost gave Usain Bolt a run for his money when he played for the Tennessee Titans. The running back’s lightning pace helped him to get within touching distance of the 10,000-yard mark, no mean feat in what proved to be a relatively short career. Many neutrals believe that he’d have been inducted into the Hall of Fame by now had he signed with a better team.
34. Joe Perry – 9,723
One of the NFL’s pioneering figures, Joe Perry was the first ever player of color to be crowned an MVP. The San Francisco 49ers icon had also amassed a then-record of 9,723 rushing yards by the time he hung up his boots. And the man nicknamed The Jet, whose career stretched from 1948 until 1963, was twice named as an All Pro, too.
33. Matt Forte – 9,796
Matt Forte established himself as an all-time great during almost a decade with the Chicago Bears. He was the franchise’s first ever player to amass 900 rushing yards in every single one of his first seven seasons. The running back also came within a whisker of achieving the feat in his eighth. In fact, he only missed out by just two agonizing yards!
32. Clinton Portis – 9,923
Clinton Portis quickly endeared himself to the Washington Redskins after signing from the Denver Broncos. He surpassed the 1,000 rushing yards mark four times and in 2008 was selected for the Pro Bowl. But you may remember that he was just as entertaining in his post-game interviews as he was on the football field.
31. Ricky Williams – 10,009
Ricky Williams’ questionable extra-curricular activities often overshadowed his achievements on the field. But when he was in form, few running backs could compete. The Miami Dolphins star was particularly impressive in the 2002 season when he scored no fewer than 16 touchdowns and averaged an incredible 115.8 yards per game.
30. Ottis Anderson – 10,273
After overcoming various injury problems, Ottis Anderson established himself as an all-time great at both the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Giants. While playing for the latter in 1989 he was crowned the NFL Comeback Player of the Year. Anderson was also given the MVP title after guiding the G-Men to triumph at Super Bowl XXV.
29. Marshawn Lynch – 10,413
Marshawn Lynch’s astounding 67-yard run in the 2011 playoffs against the New Orleans Saints is considered by many to be the finest example of NFL rushing play ever. The man nicknamed Beast Mode has also helped to steer the Seattle Seahawks to victory at the Super Bowl. And his career rushing touchdown tally of 84 and five Pro Bowl selections suggest he’s a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame.
28. Eddie George – 10,441
Eddie George was named as an All Pro while playing for the Houston Oilers and then again when the team transitioned into the Tennessee Titans. He also enjoyed one of the most enduring careers in the history of his position. In fact, Walter Payton is the only running back who’s started more regular season games in a row.
27. Tiki Barber – 10,449
By the time that Tiki Barber waved goodbye to the NFL in 2006 he’d become the New York Giants’ leading rusher of all time. The three-time Pro Bowl-er amassed a tally of more than 10,000 yards during his decade-long career with the franchise. Much to his fans’ disappointment, the running back hasn’t yet been inducted into the Hall of Fame.
26. Thomas Jones – 10,591
Thomas Jones only played 45 games for the Chicago Bears but still made the franchise’s all-time Top Ten leading rushers list. The running back also guided the team to the Super Bowl during his three seasons before moving to the New York Jets, where he added a Pro Bowl selection to his resume. Jones was quite the traveler, having played for the Virginia Cavaliers, the Arizona Cardinals and the Kansas City Chiefs, too.
25. Jamal Lewis – 10,607
Jamal Lewis had achieved an astonishing career average of 81 rushing yards per game by the time he retired from the sport in 2009. His golden year proved to be 2003, when he scored no fewer than 14 touchdowns and amassed 2,066 rushing yards. Three seasons before Lewis had also helped the Baltimore Ravens to win the first Super Bowl of the new millennium.
24. Ricky Watters – 10,643
Ricky Watters was selected for the Pro Bowl on no fewer than five occasions but somehow never made it as an All Pro. The man nicknamed “Running” also helped the San Francisco 49ers lift the Super Bowl during his decade-long stint in the NFL. Spells with the Seattle Seahawks and the Philadelphia Eagles added to Watters’ impressive career rushing yards total of 10,643.
23. Warrick Dunn – 10,967
Warrick Dunn wasted little time establishing himself in the NFL after being drafted in 1997. He was selected as a Pro Bowl-er and crowned Offensive Rookie of the Year in his first season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The running back twice achieved the 1,000 rushing yard mark during his long-running stint with the franchise; you might not know that the former athlete is so obsessed with his game of choice that he now owns a minority stake in the Atlanta Falcons, a team with whom he spent six years of his career.
22. LeSean McCoy – 11,070
Now plying his trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, LeSean McCoy may well move further up this list before he calls time on his career. The running back first caught attention with the Philadelphia Eagles where he broke numerous records. McCoy achieved the franchise’s highest rushing tally in a single game, a single season and of all time.
21. O.J. Simpson – 11,236
It’s easy to forget that before that infamous court case, O.J. Simpson was one of the most talented footballers of his generation. The hugely controversial star’s biggest achievement on the field came in 1973 when he racked up an incredible 2,003 yards in just 14 games. Famed for his explosive speed, The Juice enjoyed nine seasons with the Buffalo Bills and two with the San Francisco 49ers. Mind you, he only ever got to the playoffs once.
20. Corey Dillon – 11,241
Corey Dillon spent seven seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals where he was selected for the Pro Bowl on three consecutive occasions. The running back achieved his biggest success, though, during his final NFL years with the New England Patriots. Not only did Dillon guide the franchise to the Super Bowl XXXIX but in 2006 he also scored a career high of 13 touchdowns.
19. John Riggins – 11,352
John Riggins certainly had more stamina than most running backs. His NFL career lasted 14 years, the majority of which were spent with the Washington Redskins. Riggins would surpass the 1,000-yard mark on no fewer than four occasions during his career. And in 1982 he was crowned the Super Bowl MVP after helping the Redskins to defeat the Miami Dolphins.
18. Steven Jackson – 11,438
Steven Jackson isn’t exactly short of confidence when it comes to his talents on the football field. When asked who he believed to be the St. Louis Rams’ greatest running back by the Los Angeles Times in 2018, he put his very own name forward. Jackson does have the receipts, though. He finished his nine-year spell at the Rams with a total of 56 touchdowns and 10,138 rushing yards.
17. Fred Taylor – 11,695
Fred Taylor would no doubt be held in even higher regard if he’d played for a team more successful than the Jacksonville Jaguars. The running back was only once selected for the Pro Bowl and was completely snubbed when it came to the All Pro. But his 11,695 rushing yards career tally is far greater than many of his more celebrated peers.
16. Thurman Thomas – 12,074
Thurman Thomas spent all but one of his 13 NFL seasons with the Buffalo Bills, where he cemented himself as an all-time great. The running back amassed a rushing yards total of more than 12,000 and achieved the 1,000-yard mark eight seasons in a row. In 2007 Thomas deservedly received a Hall of Fame induction.
15. Franco Harris – 12,120
Famed for the play hailed as the Immaculate Reception, Franco Harris was an instrumental part of one of the greatest NFL teams of the 1970s. The running back played in four Super Bowls during his 12-season spell with the Pittsburgh Steelers. And by the time Harris hung up his boots, he’d amassed an astonishing rushing yards total of 12,120.
14. Marcus Allen – 12,243
Marcus Allen booked his place in the NFL record books when he became the first running back ever to reach the 10,000 rushing yards mark. The footballing legend also lifted the Super Bowl during his lengthy spell with the Los Angeles Raiders. And thanks to a further five seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, Allen ended his career with a rushing touchdown total of 123.
13. Edgerrin James – 12,246
Edgerrin James burst out of the blocks at the turn of the century as part of the Indianapolis Colts. He was crowned Rookie of the Year following a rushing attempts total of 369 and was also selected for the Pro Bowl. James continued to impress when he moved to the Arizona Cardinals in the mid-‘00s where he surpassed the 12,000-yard milestone.
12. Marshall Faulk – 12,279
Marshall Faulk was a vital part of the turn of the century St. Louis Rams’ line-up hailed as the Greatest Show on Turf. You may recall that the running back also helped the franchise win a Super Bowl during this period. And thanks to a previous five-year spell with the Indianapolis Colts, he ended his career with an impressive rushing yard tally of 12,279.
11. Jim Brown – 12,312
The legendary Jim Brown spent nine seasons with the Cleveland Browns in the mid-20th century and surpassed the 1,000-yard mark in all but two. Had he not retired at the age of 29, there’s every chance he could have topped the all-time list. Brown was also selected as an All-Pro on eight occasions and was crowned MVP three times, too.
10. Tony Dorsett – 12,739
Tony Dorsett retired from the game way back in 1988 but still remains the only NFL player ever to achieve a 99-yard rush. The running back spent all but one of his 12 years in the game with the Dallas Cowboys. And if it hadn’t been for the 1982 campaign cut short by a strike, then he would no doubt have achieved nine consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
9. Eric Dickerson – 13,259
Standing at 6ft 3in, Eric Dickerson was much taller than your average running back. And he used his extra height to his full advantage, particularly in the 1984 season where he achieved a record-breaking 2,105 yards. The former Los Angeles Rams and Indianapolis Colts star also surpassed the 10,000-yard mark in record time.
8. Jerome Bettis – 13,662
Jerome Bettis wasn’t nicknamed “The Bus” for no reason. The running back used his imposing frame to score 91 touchdowns and achieve a rushing yard total of more than 13,000 during his stints with the Los Angeles Rams, the St. Louis Rams and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Bettis also enjoyed the sweet taste of success at the Super Bowl and played at no fewer than six Pro Bowls.
7. LaDainian Tomlinson – 13,684
San Diego Chargers legend LaDainian Tomlinson passed the 1,000-yard mark eight seasons in a row after breaking through to the NFL in 2001. The running back was also crowned the 2006 Walter Payton Man of the Year and ended his career with the New York Jets with a rushing yard total of 13,684. Unfortunately, Tomlinson never got the chance to showcase his talents at a Super Bowl.
6. Curtis Martin – 14,101
Curtis Martin posted his team’s best rushing yards tally in all of his three seasons with the New England Patriots and all of his eight with the New York Jets. The running back was also only the second NFL player ever to achieve the 1,000-yard mark in each and every one of his first ten years on the field. Martin’s best performance came in 2004 with a remarkable total of 1,697.
5. Adrian Peterson – 14,530
Adrian Peterson debuted in the NFL in 2007 but 13 years later is still going strong. That’s right, the Detroit Lions star bounced back from severe injury to continue his career and take his rushing yards tally to an astonishing 14,530. The running back’s golden year came with the Minnesota Vikings in 2012 when he posted a total of 2,000 rushing yards. Had Peterson remained in full health, he’d undoubtedly be vying for the top spot here.
4. Barry Sanders – 15,269
Barry Sanders was considered to still be very much at the top of his game when he walked away from the NFL in 1998. Just a year earlier he’d amassed a rushing yards tally of 2,053! Renowned for his brute strength, the Detroit Lions icon had passed the 1,000-yard mark in each and every one of his ten seasons with the franchise.
3. Frank Gore – 15,657
Frank Gore is another NFL star who still has the chance to extend his incredible rushing yards tally before retiring from the football field. You see, the running back has already added more than 300 yards during his current stint with the New York Jets. But he amassed the majority of his 15,650+ total while playing for the San Francisco 49ers from 2005 until 2014.
2. Walter Payton – 16,726
What Walter Payton lacked in speed he more than made up for in determination. The late great running back never stopped working whenever he took to the football field, which perhaps explains how he racked up a colossal 16,276 rushing yards during his career. Payton spent all 13 of his NFL seasons with the Chicago Bears and even more remarkably only ever missed a single game.
1. Emmitt Smith – 18,355
So the running back who holds the NFL’s all-time rushing yards record of 18,355 is a man who was once told he’d never make it. Yes, Emmitt Smith’s smaller than average frame deterred many franchise scouts early on in his career. But after the Dallas Cowboys took a punt, Smith repaid their faith by reaching the 1,000-yard mark 11 seasons in a row.