Who is the best NFL running back in history?


Before the NFL became a passing league, football was ruled by premier running backs.

Jim Brown shined in the early years of the NFL before handing the torch off to stars like Gale Sayers and the late Franco Harris. Walter Payton and Barry Sanders took over soon after and set a path for the top-tier runners of the 21st century.

While running has always been an integral part of the game, football’s evolution makes it difficult to compare players from different eras. The record books offer a glimpse at who stands above the rest, but even those statistics are limited when it comes to determining the best running back of all time.

Here’s what the numbers say when comparing the best running backs in NFL history.

Who has the most rushing yards in NFL history?

Emmitt Smith is the NFL’s all-time rushing leader, accumulating 18,355 yards on the ground during his 15-year career with the Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals. Here is how Smith compares to the rest of the top 10 all-time:

1. Emmitt Smith: 18,355

2. Walter Payton: 16,726

3. Barry Sanders: 15,269

4. Frank Gore: 14,748

5. Curtis Martin: 14,101

6. LaDainian Tomlinson: 13,684

7. Jerome Bettis: 13,662

8. Adrian Peterson: 13,318

9. Eric Dickerson: 13,259

10. Tony Dorsett: 12,739

While Smith is the all-time leader in rushing yards, he is much further down on the leaderboard when it comes to his best single-season total. His 1,773 rushing yards in 1995 are 25th all-time for a rusher in a season.

Dickerson holds the single-season record with 2,105 yards in 1984. Peterson nearly broke that mark in 2012 but fell eight yards shy of Dickerson’s total.

In all, eight players have surpassed 2,000 rushing yards in one season.

Who has the most rushing touchdowns in NFL history?

Once again, Smith comes out on top. He rushed into the endzone 164 times in his career, 19 more times than any other player.

1. Emmitt Smith: 164

2. LaDainian Tomlinson: 145

3. Marcus Allen: 123

4. Adrian Peterson: 120

5. Walter Payton: 110

6. Jim Brown: 106

7. John Riggins: 104

T-8. Shaun Alexander: 100

T-8. Marshall Faulk: 100

10. Barry Sanders: 99

Unlike rushing yards, Smith once held onto the title for the most rushing TDs in a season. He scored 25 times in 1995, breaking John Riggins’ mark of 24 set with Washington in 1983.

Three players have since surpassed Smith’s 25 rushing touchdowns in a season. Priest Holmes scored 27 in 2003 and Alexander matched that number in 2005. The current record was set in 2006 when Tomlinson piled up 28 rushing scores.

Who has the most carries in NFL history?

Smith had almost 600 more carries than any other running back in history.

1. Emmitt Smith: 4,409

2. Walter Payton: 3,838

3. Frank Gore: 3,735

4. Curtis Martin: 3,518

5. Jerome Bettis: 3,479

6. Adrian Peterson: 3,230

7. LaDainian Tomlinson: 3,174

8. Barry Sanders: 3,062

9. Edgerrin James: 3,174

10. Marcus Allen: 3,022

There are two sides to the coin when it comes to bringing up carries in the debate of the greatest running backs.

On one side, a detractor could use it to diminish Smith’s other cumulative records since he had the most opportunity to acquire them. How much higher would Sanders be in the record books if he played 15 seasons instead of 10? Could Tomlinson have scored more career touchdowns if he had as many carries as Smith?

On the other side, availability is an ability. Smith did not miss more than two games in a season until Year 14 and picked up 937 rushing yards to go with nine touchdowns in his last season at 35 years old. Beyond the regular season statistics, Smith added wear and tear across 17 playoff games while earning three Super Bowl rings.

Which running back has the most catches in NFL history?

Running backs don’t exclusively take handoffs. Receiving is an integral aspect of the position, especially in the modern NFL.

Faulk, Tomlinson and Allen are the only full-time running backs who rank in the top 100 all-time for receptions. Faulk leads the bunch with 767 receptions, putting him at No. 39 in league history among all pass-catchers. Tomlinson is tied for 80th with 626 catches and Allen is 100th with 587.

Faulk is also No. 1 among full-time running backs with 36 receiving touchdowns.

How many running backs have won NFL MVP?

Sixteen running backs have been named MVP.

Jim Brown earned the honor in 1957, 1958 and 1965 and is the only multi-time MVP among running backs. 

Other running backs to win MVP include Paul Hornung (1961), Jim Taylor (1962), Larry Brown (1972), O.J. Simpson (1973), Payton (1977), Earl Campbell (1979), Allen (1985), Thurman Thomas (1991), Smith (1993), Sanders (1997, co-MVP with Brett Favre), Terrell Davis (1998), Faulk (2000), Alexander (2005), Tomlinson (2006) and most recently Peterson (2012).

How many NFL running backs are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

Here are the 22 running backs that own gold jackets listed by the year they were enshrined in Canton, Ohio:

  • Ollie Matson (1972)
  • Gale Sayers (1977)
  • O.J. Simpson (1985)
  • Larry Csonka (1987)
  • Franco Harris (1990)
  • Earl Campbell (1991)
  • John Riggins (1992)
  • Walter Payton (1993)
  • Leroy Kelly (1994)
  • Tony Dorsett (1994)
  • Eric Dickerson (1999)
  • Marcus Allen (2003)
  • Barry Sanders (2004)
  • Thurman Thomas (2007)
  • Emmitt Smith (2010)
  • Floyd Little (2010)
  • Marshall Faulk (2011)
  • Curtis Martin (2012)
  • Jerome Bettis (2015)
  • LaDainian Tomlinson (2017)
  • Terrell Davis (2017)
  • Edgerrin James (2020)

Who is the best NFL running back in history?

Ultimately, this question cannot be answered by numbers. Smith may have the stats, but there are cases to be made for other star running backs throughout history.

Brown was the best player in the entire NFL during his career. Payton and Sanders had arguably the top running ability the game has ever seen. Peterson was an unstoppable force at a time in which passing had taken over the sport. Bo Jackson, someone who hasn’t even been mentioned yet, was perhaps the most unique athlete to ever step on a football field.

It ultimately comes down to personal preference for what attributes you want out of a running back, but you can’t go wrong with any of those guys in the backfield.

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