NFL | Apr 21, 2023

Top 7 running backs in NFL history

By Harry Bazley

Football running back ball carrier action

The running back position has always been one of the most important in the NFL, with some of the top players in history having lined up in the backfield. While there have been many great running backs in the league, only a select few can be considered the best of the best...

Honorable Mentions

These few players didn't quite make the top 7, but they are still respected as some of the greatest backs to ever compete in the greatest show on turf.

  • LaDainian Tomlinson

  • Adrian Peterson

  • Gale Sayers

  • OJ Simpson

Now, onto my official top 7 rankings for the greatest running backs in NFL history.

7. Earl Campbell

Earl Campbell is widely regarded as one of the greatest running backs in the history of American football. Born on March 29, 1955, in Tyler, Texas, he began his football career at John Tyler High School. He then went on to play for the University of Texas, where he gained national attention for his exceptional skill on the field. In 1977, he was drafted first overall by the Houston Oilers, where he would go on to have an illustrious professional career.

During his time with the Oilers, Campbell established himself as one of the most dominant running backs of his era. He won the NFL rushing title three times (1978-80) and was named the league's Most Valuable Player in 1979. That year, he rushed for a career-high 1,934 yards and 13 touchdowns, leading the Oilers to their first-ever playoff appearance. Campbell was also a five-time Pro Bowl selection, a three-time First-Team All-Pro, and a two-time Second-Team All-Pro.

Campbell's running style was characterized by his powerful, bruising runs, as he was known for his ability to break tackles and overpower defenders. He was a rare combination of size, speed, and agility, which made him difficult to bring down. His signature move, the "Earl Campbell Hop," involved him jumping over defenders who tried to tackle him low. His physicality and determination on the field made him a fan favorite and earned him the nickname "The Tyler Rose," in honor of his hometown. In 1991, Campbell was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, cementing his legacy as one of the greatest running backs of all time.

6. Eric Dickerson

Eric Dickerson was born on September 2, 1960, in Sealy, Texas, and grew up playing football in high school and college. Dickerson played college football at Southern Methodist University, where he set numerous records and earned All-American honors in his senior year.

In 1983, Dickerson was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams as the second overall pick. He immediately made an impact in his rookie season, rushing for a record-breaking 1,808 yards and 18 touchdowns, earning him the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. In 1984, he set a single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards, a record that still stands today. Dickerson went on to have a successful career playing for the Rams, the Indianapolis Colts, the Los Angeles Raiders, and the Atlanta Falcons.

Throughout his career, Dickerson received numerous awards, including being named to six Pro Bowls and being selected as a First-Team All-Pro five times. He was also inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999. What made Dickerson such a good running back was his combination of speed, power, and vision. He had the ability to read the defense and find holes in the line, and once he broke into the open field, he was almost impossible to catch. His size and strength also made him a difficult player to tackle, and he often dragged defenders for extra yards after contact. Overall, Eric Dickerson's career as a running back was nothing short of remarkable, and his place in NFL history is well-deserved.

5. Marshall Faulk

Marshall Faulk had a remarkable career that spanned from 1994 to 2005, during which he played for the Indianapolis Colts and the St. Louis Rams. Faulk was known for his versatility and agility, which made him a lethal weapon in both the running and passing game.

Faulk was a seven-time Pro Bowler, a three-time First-Team All-Pro selection, and a two-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year. He won the Super Bowl with the Rams in 2000 and was named the game's MVP. Faulk also holds several NFL records, including most yards from scrimmage in a single season (2,429) and most consecutive seasons with 2,000 or more yards from scrimmage (four).

What made Faulk such a great running back was his unique blend of speed, power, and agility. He was equally comfortable running between the tackles or catching passes out of the backfield. Faulk was a gifted runner with excellent vision and the ability to make defenders miss in the open field. He was also a superb receiver, with soft hands and the ability to turn short passes into big gains. Faulk's versatility and all-around skills made him a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses, and he will forever be remembered as one of the most dynamic players in NFL history.

4. Jim Brown

Jim Brown was born on February 17, 1936, in St. Simons, Georgia, and began his football career at Syracuse University, where he played from 1954 to 1956. Brown was an exceptional athlete, playing not only football but also lacrosse and basketball. In his senior year, he led the nation in rushing with 986 yards on 141 carries, averaging 7.0 yards per carry - and this was a clear sign of things to come.

After college, Brown was selected sixth overall by the Cleveland Browns in the 1957 NFL Draft. He played for the Browns from 1957 to 1965, amassing an impressive list of accomplishments along the way. Brown was named the NFL's Rookie of the Year in 1957 and went on to win the league's MVP award three times (1957, 1958, and 1965). He was an eight-time first-team All-Pro selection and led the league in rushing eight times, including a remarkable stretch of five consecutive seasons from 1957 to 1961.

What made Brown such a dominant running back was his vision to find gaps in the defense. He was able to run with great speed, making him a threat to break off long runs at any moment. At the same time, he was also incredibly powerful, often breaking tackles and dragging defenders with him for extra yards. Finally, his vision allowed him to read the defense and make quick decisions about where to run, often finding holes in the line that other running backs would miss. Brown retired from football in 1966 at the age of 30, leaving behind a legacy as one of the greatest players to ever step onto the field.

3. Walter Payton

Walter Payton, also known as "Sweetness," was a legendary American football player who played as a running back for the Chicago Bears from 1975 to 1987. Known for his incredible strength, speed, and agility on the field, he is regarded as one of the most dominant running backs in NFL history.

Payton's football career was nothing short of extraordinary, with numerous accolades and achievements to his name. He was selected to nine Pro Bowls, named First-Team All-Pro six times, and won the NFL's Most Valuable Player award in 1977. At the time of his retirement in 1987, he held the records for attempts, rushing yards (16,726), rushing touchdowns, and all-purpose yards.

Payton's remarkable combination of power and speed, along with his unmatched work ethic and determination, solidified his name as one of the greatest running backs of all time. He was known for his ability to break tackles and run through defenders, but he was also incredibly elusive and could change direction on a dime. Payton was also a versatile player, with a talent for catching passes out of the backfield and throwing touchdown passes on trick plays. Off the field, he was known for his humble and gracious demeanor, making him a beloved figure among football fans and players alike.

2. Barry Sanders

Barry Sanders is number 1 on many lists out there, and perhaps he was the best running back in terms of ability, but he falls just short in the stats department. He played for the Detroit Lions from 1989 to 1998 and was known for his incredible speed, agility, and elusive running style. Sanders is considered to be one of the most exciting players to watch, thanks to his ability to change direction quickly and leave defenders in his wake.

Throughout his career, Sanders amassed a long list of accolades and achievements. He was a 10-time Pro Bowl selection and was named First-Team All-Pro six times. Sanders was also named the NFL Offensive Player of the Year twice and was named to the NFL 1990s All-Decade Team. In addition, he won the NFL rushing title four times and was the league's Most Valuable Player in 1997.

Sanders is viewed so highly in NFL history, due to his ability to make defenders miss. He had incredible footwork and was able to change direction quickly without losing speed. Sanders was also known for his ability to run through tackles and break big plays. He had a unique running style that made him difficult to tackle, and he could turn any play into a highlight reel moment. Sanders' combination of speed, agility, and power made him a nightmare for opposing defenses, and he will always be remembered as one of the greatest players to ever grace the field.

1. Emmitt Smith

Emmitt Smith is undoubtedly one of greatest running backs in the history of the National Football League. He played for the Dallas Cowboys from 1990 to 2002, and then for the Arizona Cardinals in 2003 and 2004. Over the course of his illustrious career, Smith set numerous records and achieved many accolades.

Smith's career statistics are impressive, to say the least. He logged a total of 18,355 career rushing yards, which is the most in NFL history, and he scored 175 rushing touchdowns, which is also a league record. He was selected to eight Pro Bowls and was a four-time First-Team All-Pro. He was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player (MVP) in 1993, and he helped lead the Cowboys to three Super Bowl victories in the 1990s. Smith received the Super Bowl MVP award for Super Bowl XXVIII, becoming the only Cowboys running back ever to win the award. In addition to his individual accomplishments, Smith was also a great team player and a leader on and off the field.

Smith had everything you would want in a running back, with an elite level of speed, agility, vision, and toughness. He had an incredible ability to make defenders miss and break tackles, and he was known for his impressive balance and his ability to change direction quickly. Smith was also a durable player who rarely missed games due to injury, and he was able to maintain his high level of performance for many years. His work ethic, dedication to his craft, and competitive drive were also key factors in his success.

In my books, all of these qualities combined, make Emmitt Smith the greatest running back to ever lace up cleats in the NFL.