One of the most physically demanding jobs in professional sports is playing as an NFL running back. Aside from the fact that it is really difficult, the job also requires a lot of skill and conditioning. Men that play the position don’t often last long. NFL running backs completely retiring from the game after 10 seasons or less is not uncommon. This is because the job takes a toll on their bodies. We have made a list of the best running backs in NFL history, several of whom had short yet brilliant careers. It was difficult to cut the list down and some great backs have gotten the axe. Keep reading to see who made the cut.
Tiki Barber (Years In The NFL: 1997-2006)
Tiki Barber is a three-time Pro Bowler. In 2006, he finished his career as the all-time rushing leader in the history of the New York Giants. He is one of the few 10,000-yard rushers that has not been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Although his rushing touchdown numbers and yards-per-game mark are not that impressive, he has a very solid 4.7 yards per rushing attempt. Compared to many other running backs on this list, Barber was a relatively better receiver. When he retired, he had 15,632 total yards from scrimmage.
Chris Johnson (Years In The NFL: 2008-2017)
For six seasons, Chris Johnson played running back for the Titans. His freakish speed made him a must-see player during that time. He was a little under the 10,000-yard mark when he finished his career. That’s pretty impressive considering how short his career was. He is also a standout when it comes to rushing yards per game and per attempt, finishing with 74.2 and 4.5, respectively. Unfortunately for Johnson, he played on some dismal teams. He only got the chance to play in one playoff game. Had he been part of a good offense, he could have probably become a Hall of Famer.
Jamal Lewis (Years In The NFL: 2000-2009)
Jamal Lewis is another guy that had a short yet memorable career. He played his entire career in the really physically demanding AFC North. When Lewis was a rookie, he won a Super Bowl while playing for the Baltimore Ravens. He finished his borderline Hall-of-Fame career with 10,607 career rushing yards and an outstanding 81 yards per game average. The year 2003 was the most incredible for him since he rushed for 14 touchdowns and 2,066 yards. Lewis remains the all-time rushing leader in the history of the Ravens even though it has been almost 15 years since he left the sport.
Ricky Watters (Years In The NFL: 1992-2001)
During his 10-season career in the NFL, Ricky “Running” Watters dazzled fans by proving that he is a great rusher and pass catcher. While he played for the 49ers, he won one Super Bowl. He was selected to Pro Bowl five times but somehow never earned an All-Pro selection. He finished his career with numbers that are at a Hall of Fame-level, including 14,891 total yards from scrimmage, 78 rushing touchdowns and 10,643 rushing yards. His career averages of 73.9 rushing yards per game and 4.1 yards per carry are definitely nothing to sneeze at.
Joe Perry (Years In The NFL: 1948-1963)
Joe “The Jet” Perry is another 49ers icon. The first black player who was named NFL MVP, he finished his career with 9,723 career yards, making him the NFL’s all-time rushing leader. The Hall of Famer was selected as an All-Pro two times and took the running back position to new heights. He had a 5.0 yards per rush attempt, which is still one of the all-time best marks in the league. The legendary Gale Sayers had the same yards per rush attempt.
Ottis Anderson (Years In The NFL: 1979-1992)
Two-time Super Bowl champ and Giants legend O.J. Anderson took the NFL by storm right from the start. He played with the St. Louis Cardinals for the 1979 season, when he was selected as the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Even though he had 10,273 career rushing yards and 81 career rushing touchdowns while playing mostly in the top media market of the nation, Anderson never really made it to Canton.
Marshawn Lynch (Years In The NFL: 2007-2019)
Marshawn Lynch isn’t called “Beast Mode” for nothing. His rushing career is one of the best in recent history. Aside from winning a Super Bowl and being selected to five Pro Bowls, Lynch had 85 career rushing touchdowns, which puts him among the NFL greats. His 10,413 career rushing yards and 4.2 yards per carry career average make a great case for his induction to the Hall of Fame. In the 2011 playoffs, he did a 67-yard run while playing against the New Orleans Saints. It might be the best single rushing play ever in the history of the NFL.
Thurman Thomas (Years In The NFL: 1988-2000)
In the ‘90s, Thurman Thomas was one of the main reasons why the Buffalo Bills made it to the Super Bowl for four consecutive times. A dual-threat offensive player, he had an outstanding career and went on to become a Hall of Famer. Although his yards-per-game average and touchdown numbers are middling compared to others on this list, Thomas managed to distinguish himself through an offense loaded with talent. A former NFL MVP, he was also selected to five Pro Bowls and earned an All-Pro selection twice. He racked up almost 17,000 total yards from scrimmage and remains the third all-time in terms of career playoff rushing yards.
John Riggins (Years In The NFL: 1971-1985)
John Riggins was a touchdown machine that especially turned it on during the big games. He finished his career with 11,352 rushing yards and 104 rushing touchdowns. In 1983, he won a Super Bowl with the Washington Football Team and was named the game’s MVP. The most stunning number in his Hall-of-Fame career is probably that he only earned one Pro Bowl selection, which puts him among the underappreciated star backs in NFL history.
Edgerrin James (Years In The NFL: 1999-2009)
Despite his career being very similar to that of Fred Taylor, his longtime AFC South rival, Edgerrin James played on better teams and had slightly better numbers across the board. By the time his 11-season career was finished, James had collected 80 rushing touchdowns and 12,246 rushing yards, both numbers which put him among all-time rushing legends. Aside from that, he benefited from playing with Peyton Manning for seven seasons. James also racked up almost 3,500 receiving yards.
Corey Dillon (Years In The NFL: 1997-2006)
In spite of a career which included more than 11,000 rushing yards, a Super Bowl win, and four Pro Bowls, Corey Dillon somehow seems underrated when it comes to the national conversation on GOAT running backs. Dillon averaged around 75 yards per game and racked up 82 rushing touchdowns in 10 seasons. He spent his first seven seasons with the Bengals and had a season average of around 1,400 yards from scrimmage. However, when he played for the Patriots, he became a touchdown machine and scored 39 of them in only three seasons with the team.
Jerome Bettis (Years In The NFL: 1993-2005)
In the final seasons of Jerome Bettis’ career, the Steelers legend became a touchdown machine, routinely scoring at the goal line with much ease. Over his career, he won a Super Bowl, was selected to the Pro Bowl six times, and earned two All-Pro selections. Aside from that, he racked up 91 rushing touchdowns and 13,662 rushing yards, which are both among the highest all-time marks. Even though his career averages were not the best, when “The Bus” was moving toward you, the best thing to do was to get out of the way.
Frank Gore (Years In The NFL: 2005-present)
Most NFL rushers burn out after around 10 seasons but not Frank Gore. This machine does not follow that law. In all but one season from 2006 to 2017, he collected at least 900 rushing yards. Since then, he has remained a starter well into his 30s. Because of his longevity, the five-time Pro Bowler is now third all-time among the leading rushers in the league, with almost 16,000 career rushing yards. Gore also has a remarkable 4.3 yards-per-carry figure which spans that long career. In 2018, he made an impressive 4.6 yards per carry at 35 years old.
Gale Sayers (Years In The NFL: 1965-1971)
In spite of having played in the NFL for just five full-time seasons, Gale Sayers still achieved legendary status. Before Walter Payton, Sayers or “The Kansas Comet” was the greatest rusher in the history of the Chicago Bears, dazzling fans with his speed. He averaged almost 97 yards from scrimmage and 5.1 yards per carry per game from 1965 to 1969. In those five seasons, Sayers was selected to the Pro Bowl four times and earned first-team All-Pro selection every year. He retired from the game even before he turned 30 due to injuries but before he turned 35, he was inducted to the Hall of Fame.
Earl Campbell (Years In The NFL: 1978-1985)
Earl Campbell is among the most feared NFL running backs. He played for the Houston Oilers for seven seasons and during that time, he ran people over and collected over 8,000 rushing yards as well as 73 rushing touchdowns. Even more compared to other great running backs, Campbell’s body unfortunately couldn’t bear his punishing style, which led to his career ending prematurely. Nevertheless, he was named NFL MVP and was a three-time All-Pro during his brief tenure. He has been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Tony Dorsett (Years In The NFL: 1977-1988)
Before Emmitt Smith, there was Tony Dorsett – the most feared rusher in the history of the Dallas Cowboys. Aside from winning a Super Bowl, he racked up over 16,000 total yards from scrimmage, which included 12,739 on the ground. Brilliant in the playoffs, Dorsett remains at fourth all-time in terms of playoff rushing yards. However, the Hall of Famer is also at the top of the list of running backs with the most fumbles lost.
Curtis Martin (Years In The NFL: 1995-2005)
The career of Curtis Martin earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame but that should not be a surprise. After all, he racked up over 17,000 all-purpose yards, which included 14,101 rushing yards. Before he played in New York, he was a big part of the Patriots back in 1996. The pre-Tom Brady team went to the Super Bowl, with Martin’s monster season definitely playing a part in it. He averaged 83.9 rushing yards per game throughout his career and had 90 rushing touchdowns. Martin is currently sixth on the career rushing list of the NFL, which puts the Jets star among true elites.
Marshall Faulk (Years In The NFL: 1994-2005)
Marshall Faulk is definitely among the most gifted all-around NFL players of all time. During his Hall-of-Fame career, he was a question that few defenses could answer. He is the only NFL running back in history who has collected over 12,000 rushing yards, 6,000 receiving yards, and 19,154 total yards from scrimmage. He is fifth all-time in terms of the most career scrimmage yards gained. In addition, he scored 136 total touchdowns, which included 100 on the ground. His efforts earned him three All-Pro selections, seven Pro Bowl appearances, an MVP honor, and a Super Bowl win with the “Greatest Show on Turf.”
O.J. Simpson (Years In The NFL: 1969-1979)
Before the name O.J. Simpson became synonymous with Ford Broncos and courtrooms, the former NFL player was arguably the best rusher in the league since Jim Brown. Simpson had an average of 4.7 yards per carry during his career and holds the record for being the only player to collect 2,000 rushing yards in a season of 14 games. He finished his career with an incredible five All-Pro selections and 11,236 rushing yards. This shows how revered Simpson was in the league.
Franco Harris (Years In The NFL: 1972-1984)
The legendary Steelers teams stud in the ‘70s, Franco Harris had four Super Bowl victories and was voted to nine Pro Bowls during his career. His stats are incredible across the board. He amassed 12,120 rushing yards, averaged 4.1 yards per carry and had 91 rushing touchdowns. He is second all-time when it comes to rushing yards career playoffs at 1,556. Unfortunately, however, he also fumbled more times compared to any other NFL running back in history.
Terrell Davis (Years In The NFL: 1995-2001)
This list shows that several rushers have done outstanding things in short careers, but Terrell Davis arguably did the most with less time. The legend was instrumental in bringing the Broncos to its two Super Bowl victories. He collected 7,607 career rushing yards in only 78 regular-season games. On top of that, Davis impressively amassed 6,400 of those yards in only four seasons. His 97.5 rushing yards per game mark remains at third all-time, behind the greats Jim Brown and Barry Sanders. Had his body held up, Davis could have become the greatest to play the position.
Adrian Peterson (Years In The NFL: 2007-present)
Even though injuries plagued Adrian Peterson at several points during his career, he remains a starting NFL back well into his 30s, which definitely adds to his astounding career numbers. A.P. is fourth all-time when it comes to rushing touchdowns with 117, but his other numbers are also equally impressive. The former NFL MVP has an average of 4.7 yards per carry and 89.4 yards per game. He is also in the top five in terms of career rushing yards. As if all that was not enough, he was also selected as an All-Pro four times.
Marcus Allen (Years In The NFL: 1982-1997)
Marcus Allen enjoyed a career that was longer than what most rushers have. Aside from that, the L.A. football icon also put up incredible numbers. In fact, no one before him had produced the offensive numbers that he made. Allen became the first NFL running back to collect over 5,000 receiving yards and 10,000 rushing yards in a career. At the time that he retired in 1997, his 123 rushing touchdowns was a league record as well. Allen still stands at third all-time in rushing touchdowns and fifth in playoff rushing yards. What’s more, he earned a Super Bowl ring, NFL MVP honors and two All-Pro selections during his stellar career.
Fred Taylor (Years In The NFL: 1998-2010)
Jaguars icon Fred Taylor is another rusher that turned in monster numbers yet hasn’t made it to Canton. For some reason, he was only voted to the Pro Bowl once and never earned an All-Pro selection. Nevertheless, he finished with 11,695 career rushing yards and averaged over 5.0 yards per carry in two seasons. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry over his career and holds many Jaguars franchise records even to this day. With 14,079 total yards from scrimmage, he would probably be much more celebrated had he played for a team that was in a bigger market.
LaDainian Tomlinson (Years In The NFL: 2001-2011)
Phillip Rivers and Dan Fouts were definitely great in the Chargers uniform, but many fans would probably say that the greatest player in the history of the franchise is LaDainian Tomlinson. His Hall-of-Fame career was marked by productivity since he amassed 18,456 total yards from scrimmage as well as 145 rushing touchdowns, a record that puts him behind only Emmitt Smith. Aside from that, L.T. was named NFL MVP once, selected to five Pro Bowls and earned an All-Pro selection thrice. He was pretty much a dream pick of a fantasy football owner.
Eric Dickerson (Years In The NFL: 1983-1993)
One of those athletes that can say their record may never be broken, Eric Dickerson amassed 2,105 rushing yards in just a single season. That has been the record in the NFL since 1984. Dickerson was not a one-season wonder either. He collected over 13,000 career rushing yards and made 90 touchdowns. He also has astounding career averages, including 90.8 yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry in 11 seasons. His yards-per-game mark remains fourth all-time.
Walter Payton (Years In The NFL: 1975-1987)
If a Mount Rushmore of NFL running backs existed, the “Sweetness” would definitely be on the rock. The best rusher of his generation, the Bears legend racked up 16,726 rushing yards, which was a record back then and still sits at second all-time, together with 110 rushing touchdowns. Even though fumbles became somewhat of a problem in the long run, the five-time All-Pro definitely made up for it by collecting 21,264 total yards from scrimmage in addition to an 88 yards-per-game career average. Payton also had MVP honors, won a Super Bowl, and was selected to nine Pro Bowls.
Jim Brown (Years In The NFL: 1957-1965)
This man made running a football an art form. His career numbers still sit among the all-time best despite the fact that he hasn’t played since 1965. It is hard to know where to start. Jim Brown had an average of 104.3 yards per game, which remains the league’s all-time mark and probably always will be. His 5.2 yards-per-carry average also outpaces almost all other rushers. When his career ended, he had made 12,312 rushing yards. His 106 touchdowns still remains sixth all-time. In case you had doubts about his popularity among the media and fans, Brown earned Pro Bowl selections in all nine seasons that he played and was chosen as first-team All-Pro in eight of them.
Barry Sanders (Years In The NFL: 1989-1998)
Perhaps more than any other NFL player in history, the career of Barry Sanders continues to be a massive “What if … ” seeing as he walked away while there was still a lot left in the tank. Within only 10 NFL seasons, the numbers that the Lions icon put up was truly amazing, including 99 rushing touchdowns and 15,269 rushing yards. Like Jim Brown, Sanders earned Pro Bowl selection in every season that he played. This shouldn’t be a surprise, though, since he had an average of 5.0 yards per carry. His 99.8 rushing yards per game stands at second all-time. Simply put, Sanders was a freak and no defenses wanted to and could deal with him.
Emmitt Smith (Years In The NFL: 1990-2004)
Like Jim Brown and Walter Payton before him, Emmitt Smith currently holds almost every major record that a running back can hold — and it doesn’t seem like he’ll get dethroned any time soon. A key part of the Cowboys in the ’90s, Smith won three Super Bowls with the team. His popularity led to him being named a Pro Bowler eight times. When his amazing career ended, he had 18,355 rushing yards, 1,586 playoff rushing yards and 164 rushing touchdowns, all of which remain a record in the league even after more than 15 years. Even though his yards-per-carry and yards-per-game marks aren’t as exciting as others on this list, Smith stood out because he was on fantastic teams as well. He has become one of the most popular players in NFL history.
Ollie Matson (Years In The NFL: 1952-1966)
Ollie Genoa Matson II was an American Olympic medal-winning sprinter and professional American football running back who played in the National Football League (NFL) from 1952 to 1966. Matson, drafted into the NFL by the Chicago Cardinals, was traded for nine players after the 1958 season to the Los Angeles Rams. During the course of his career, Matson was named to the Pro Bowl six times and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1972.
Brian Mitchell (Years In The NFL: 1990 – 2003)
Brian Keith Mitchell is a former American football running back and return specialist in the National Football League. He was originally selected in the fifth round (130th overall) of the 1990 NFL Draft by the Washington Redskins. At Southwestern Louisiana University, where he was a quarterback, he played college football. Mitchell is considered one of NFL history’s greatest return specialists. Mitchell also played for the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants. At 23,330 yards, he is currently second on the NFL’s all-time list of all-purpose yardage, behind Jerry Rice. For a non-wide receiver, he is also first all-time for combined yardage.
Larry Richard Csonka (Years In The NFL: 1968-1979)
For the majority of his career, Larry Richard Csonka played with the Miami Dolphins, three years with the New York Giants, and a brief stint in the WFL with the Memphis Southmen. During his career with the Dolphins, which included being a part of their perfect 17-0 season in 1972, and winning Super Bowl championships in 1972 and 1973, the latter in which he was named Super Bowl MVP when he rushed for a record 145 yards at the time, Csonka is often remembered for his performance.
Marion Barber III (Years In The NFL: 2005-2012)
Marion Sylvester Barber III, who played for seven seasons in the National Football League, is a retired American football running back. He was selected in the fourth round of the 2005 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys after playing college football for the Minnesota Golden Gophers. During his six-year tenure with the Cowboys, he was named to the Pro Bowl in 2007. In 2011, he played for the Chicago Bears.
John Henry Johnson (Years In The NFL: 1953-1966)
His first professional stint was in Canada with the Calgary Stampeders for one season in the Western Interprovincial Football. He then played for the San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions, and Pittsburgh Steelers in the National Football League (NFL), before spending his final season with the Houston Oilers in the American Football League (AFL). An allusion to the folk hero of the same name is generally referred to simply as John Henry. Johnson was a strong and tenacious player who played well into the tail end of his career at a high level.
Bo Jackson (Years In The NFL: 1986-1991)
In both baseball and football, he is the only professional athlete in history to be named an All-Star. In various sports, Jackson’s elite accomplishments have earned him recognition as one of the greatest athletes of all time. As a running back for the Auburn Tigers, Jackson played college football and, in 1985, won the Heisman Trophy. He played for the Los Angeles Raiders in the National Football League and for the Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox, and California Angels in Major League Baseball. In 1996, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Freeman McNeil (Years In The NFL: 1981-1992)
McNeil played in 12 NFL seasons for the New York Jets from 1981 to 1992. He was a part of the Jets’ “Two-Headed Monster” backfield along with teammate Johnny Hector during the mid to late 1980s, a tandem that ranked among the elite of the league. He was the Jets’ all-time leading rusher with 8,074 yards when he retired; he was surpassed by Curtis Martin and currently ranks second in the history of the Jets franchise. McNeil led the NFL in rushing with 786 yards in 1982. In every season he played, he is one of a couple of running backs in NFL history to average 4.0 yards per carry.
Ahman Green (Years In The NFL: 1997-2011)
Ahman Rashad Green is a former American football player who played in the National Football League for 12 seasons. In the third round of the 1998 NFL Draft, Green played college football at Nebraska and was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks, remaining there for two seasons before being traded to the Green Bay Packers, for whom he played for eight of the next ten seasons. Green also played for the Houston Texans, where he holds the franchise record for rushing yards and was a four-time Pro Bowl selection with the Packers. He’s now the head coach of Esports at Lakeland University.
Lamar Miller (Years In The NFL: 2012-Present)
Miller played college football at the University of Miami and was drafted by the Miami Dolphins in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft. He has also played for the Houston Texans, New England Patriots, and Chicago Bears. Instead of the University of Florida (near his mother’s hometown), Miller opted to play for the University of Miami to remain close to home, and to follow the footsteps of other former Hurricanes running backs. Miller saw his first game action in 2010 since he was redshirted in 2009. With one start, he appeared in 11 games and hurried for 646 yards on 108 carries for six touchdowns. As the hurricanes started running back in 2011, Miller took over.
Dion Lewis (Years In The NFL: 2011 – Present)
Dion John Lewis is an American football running back for the National Football League’s New York Giants. He played college football at the University of Pittsburgh and was selected in the fifth round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. In 2017, he won Super Bowl LI with the New England Patriots over the Atlanta Falcons. Lewis was also on the Tennessee Titans and briefly on the Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts rosters, but never played for either team in a match scenario.
Eddie George (Years In The NFL: 1996-2004)
Edward Nathan George Jr., who played for nine seasons in the National Football League, is a retired professional American football running back. He played college football for the University of Ohio State and received the 1995 Heisman Trophy. He was selected in the first round of the 1996 NFL Draft and played for the Tennessee Titans and Dallas Cowboys professionally (both in Tennessee and in Houston when the franchise was known as the Houston Oilers). In 2011, George was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Warrick Dunn (Years In The NFL: 1997-2008)
Warrick De’Mon Dunn, born on January 5, 1975, is a retired American football running back who played for twelve seasons in the National Football League (NFL). After playing college football at Florida State, he was selected by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 12th overall in the 1997 NFL Draft. In 1997, Dunn was named AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and in his career, he received three Pro Bowl selections. Dunn took a minority stake in the Falcons’ ownership party, led by Arthur Blank, after his playing career.
Shaun Alexander (Years In The NFL: 2000-2008)
Shaun Edward Alexander is a retired American football running back who played for the National Football League’s Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins (NFL). He played collegiate football for the University of Alabama and was selected in the 2000 NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks 19th overall. He was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in May 2011. Alexander set multiple franchise records for the NFL and the Seattle Seahawks and was elected the NFL MVP in 2005. He was also named to NFL’s 2000 All-Decade team and ranks #8 in NFL History for Rushing Touchdowns.
Priest Holmes (Years In The NFL: 1997-2007)
Holmes was signed by the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted free agent in 1997. In their 2001 Super Bowl XXXV victory over the New York Giants, Holmes earned a Super Bowl ring with the Ravens. After rushing in Baltimore for just over 2,000 yards in four seasons, Holmes experienced breakout success after signing as a free agent in 2001 with the Kansas City Chiefs. Holmes sat out with a neck injury during the 2006 season and retired from the NFL after a brief comeback attempt in 2007. In 2007, Holmes was also inducted into the Hall of Honor of the University of Texas and the Texas High School Sports Hall of Fame.
LeSean McCoy (Years In The NFL: 2009-Present)
LeSean Kamel McCoy, nicknamed “Shady” is an American football running back for the National Football League’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers (NFL). He played college football in Pittsburgh and was drafted in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. He has also played for the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills. McCoy experienced a major ankle injury in his senior year of high school, which threatened his career. McCoy rushed for over 1,300 yards in his first year at Pittsburgh in 2007 and recorded 14 touchdowns. McCoy was selected as an All-American second-team in 2008. In the nation, his 21 rushing touchdowns were third, just one behind the two leaders.