It is difficult to appraise the running back’s importance in pro football. Of course, good running backs have underpinned their respective teams’ success, and many championship teams have had great running backs. Marshawn Lynch, for instance, was a huge factor in the Seahawks’ success this past season. But some running backs have had incredibly dominant seasons, and yet, their teams have floundered. Offensive lines also play a significant role in a running back's success, as bad o-line play can undermine a running back’s game.
One thing about the running back position is certain, though. Running backs are among the toughest players on the field. They run the ball countless times, and get hit hard and often. As a result, running backs do not have a long shelf-life, and coaches often appear too careless of a running back’s future, as their untrammeled play-calling often leads their star backs into early retirement.
Because most running backs enjoy fleeting success in the league, the players who have had long, excellent careers at the position deserve respect. For every Emmitt Smith, there are handfuls of Larry Johnsons. Smith’s career, which spanned fifteen seasons, is all the more praiseworthy in that he finished in the top 10 in rushing attempts for a season nine times. No team can sanely expect that kind of durability from their RBs.
This list thus celebrates the top 10 running backs in NFL history. As mentioned, the assessment of a running back’s career is tough, so this list looks at both team and individual success, giving more weight to the latter. These lists are open to debate, and a compelling number-one argument could be made for each of the top four players on it.
10 Adrian Peterson—net worth: $18 million
Having only played seven seasons in the NFL, Adrian Peterson finds himself on this list because of what he has done and promises to do. After suffering a devastating knee injury in 2011—the same type of injury that ruined Terrell Davis’ career—Peterson returned in 2012 to rush for 2,097 yards, running his way to the league’s MVP Award. A former standout at Oklahoma, where he always competed for the Heisman, Peterson has already rushed for over 10,000 yards in the league. He is also a popular player, as his colleagues recently voted him the player that they would most like to see win a Super Bowl.
9 Jerome Bettis—net worth: $14 million
Having played a combination of fullback and running back at Notre Dame, Jerome Bettis burst onto the NFL scene somewhat unsuspectedly in 1993, when he rushed for 1,429 yards and seven touchdowns as a member of the Los Angeles Rams. After two seasons in LA, Bettis moved to Pittsburgh where he continued his steady play. He was finally able to win a Super Bowl in his final NFL season, a heartwarming win for fans of the hard-nosed running back, and he currently ranks sixth all-time in career rushing yards with 13,662 and tenth all-time in career rushing touchdowns with 91.
8 Curtis Martin—net worth: unavailable
Quietly successful, Curtis Martin played eleven seasons in the NFL with the New England Patriots and the New York Jets, rushing for over 1,000 yards in a season ten times. Statistically, his most prolific season came in his next-to-last campaign, as he led the league in rushing with 1,697 yards. Martin was also a dual threat at the position, catching 484 passes in his career. He ranks fourth all-time in career rushing yards with 14,101 and twelfth all-time in career rushing yards with 90.
7 Eric Dickerson—net worth: $10 million
Over the course of eleven seasons in the NFL, Eric Dickerson rushed the ball 2,996 times for 13,259 yards and 90 rushing touchdowns. He made six Pro Bowls, and still holds the record for most rushing yards in a season with 2,105. He ranks seventh all-time in career rushing yards and twelfth all-time in career rushing touchdowns. A standout at SMU during his collegiate career, Dickerson often gets overshadowed by other all-time greats at the position, but deservedly, he was inducted into the Hall-of-Fame in 1999.
6 Marshall Faulk—net worth: $12 million
5 Ladainian Tomlinson—net worth: $32 million
When Ladainian Tomlinson declared for the draft in 2001, many experts ranked him below Deuce McAlister, seeing the latter as the more promising prospect. It was, then, a great benediction for San Diego fans that the team decided to pick Tomlinson over McAlister, as Tomlinson went on to have a Hall-of-Fame career. In 2006, Tomlinson rushed for 28 touchdowns, an NFL record. In 2003, he rushed for over 1,600 yards and he caught 100 passes. Indeed, Tomlinson could do it all on the field, though he never won a Super Bowl. He ranks fifth all-time in career rushing yards with 13,684 and second all-time in career rushing touchdowns with 145.
4 Jim Brown—net worth: $50 million
Though he only played nine seasons in the league, Jim Brown ranks ninth all-time in career rushing yards and fifth all-time in career rushing touchdowns. He averaged 104.3 rushing yards per game in his career, a stat that ranks first all-time. What hurts Brown’s claim as the greatest running back of all time is the era in which he played. Indeed, Jim Brown was literally a man amongst boys, and none of his contemporaries in the 50s and 60s could equal his athleticism and skill. Since retiring from pro football, he has increased his celebrity, becoming a well-respected actor and spokesperson.
3 Emmitt Smith—net worth: $26 million
As mentioned in the opening section, Emmitt Smith was unbreakable. In his career, he made eight Pro Bowls, won the league’s MVP Award once, and won three Super Bowls. He is the all-time leader in career rushing yards with 18,355 and career rushing touchdowns with 164. However, Emmitt Smith played fifteen seasons in the NFL, and though that length of career deserves to be extoled, it enabled him to push his totals ahead of other greats with sub-par seasons towards the end of his career. That said, one could easily make the argument that Smith deserves to top this list.
2 Walter Payton—net worth: deceased
Walter Payton’s scissor-kick juke that he would unleash in the open field is perhaps the most iconic move in NFL history. Sweetness, as he was affectionately nicknamed, played thirteen seasons in the NFL, winning an MVP Award and a Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears. He ranks second all-time in career rushing yards with 16,726 and fourth all-time in career rushing touchdowns. He should be credited for bringing a good deal of “razzle dazzle” to a gritty sport.
1 Barry Sanders—net worth: $28 million
Barry Sanders tops this list because few fans can name more than two players whom he played with. There was Herman Moore, right? Indeed, when Barry Sanders played for the otherwise dreadful Detroit Lions, opposing teams knew what to expect—that is, they knew the ball was going to Barry. And yet, Sanders ran rampant all over the field, juking hordes of players out of their jocks, and finding holes to explode through. As a result of the Lions’ one-man-versus-the-defense approach, Barry Sanders spent a lot of time running East and West in his attempts to find a way through the opposing defense. Over the course of ten seasons in the league, Sanders rushed for 15,269 yards and 99 rushing touchdowns. He retired in his prime, but Sanders never cared for records.