10 Best Running Backs Of All Time List

Updated on: December 2023

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Five Best Running Backs in NFL History

Throughout the history of the NFL, there have been numerous running backs that have captured our collective imaginations while simultaneously taking our breath away.

Sure, the top two or three running backs aren't hard to pick out, but the remaining two positions could go to numerous runners. It really is a matter of opinion, when it comes to selecting the best running backs of all-time.
Having said that, I have compiled my list of the five best running backs in NFL history. In order, here they are.

Walter Payton
There has never been - nor will there ever be - another Walter Payton. The aptly named "Sweetness" was, in my mind, the best running back to ever lace up a pair of cleats in NFL history.

Not only did Payton retire as the league's all-time leading rusher, but he accomplished the feat by being a model of consistency that has only been matched by one other runner in NFL history.

The fourth player chosen in the 1975 NFL draft, the 5-10 Payton retired with 16,726 total yards and 10 seasons with 1,000 or more rushing yards, 275 yards rushing in one game against Minnesota in 1977, 77 games with more than 100 yards rushing, and 110 rushing touchdowns. He also scored an extraordinary 750 points on 125 touchdowns - in an era when offenses weren't nearly as potent - or liberal.

One thing I think most people may not remember is that Payton carried the Chicago Bears' offense for several years when they were absolutely atrocious. The Bears' favorite - and best - play during those lean years before they finally broke through and won a Super Bowl title in 1985, was to run Payton to the left, to the right or up the middle. They were that bad.

Payton, however, still managed to win the NFC rushing title five straight years from 1976 to 1980. He was named both All-Pro and All-NFC seven times and played in nine Pro Bowl games. Payton was selected as the NFL's Most Valuable Player in 1977 and 1985, the NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 1977 and 1985 and the NFC Most Valuable Player in 1977.

One of the things I loved about Payton was his durability. Payton missed one game in his rookie season and then played in 186 consecutive games over the remaining 12 seasons of his career. I loved the way he delivered more punishment to would-be tacklers than he received himself and the fact that he was always the first player up off the field after a tackle. Payton set the standard for every running back to follow in his immense footsteps. However, as I said in my opening sentence - there will never be another "Sweetness" - the best running back in NFL history.

Barry Sanders
I never thought I'd see another running back in my lifetime who was as good as Walter Payton, but that's exactly what Barry Sanders was. The game's most electrifying running back ever, Sanders rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his 10 seasons with the Detroit Lions (1989-1998) and was also just the third player in NFL history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season, a feat which he accomplished in 1997 when he rushed for a league leading 2,053 yards on his way to winning the league's MVP title. Sanders also set another record that year by rushing for more than 100 yards in an incredible 14 consecutive games.

Records aside, Sanders was the most untouchable runner I have ever seen. "Elusive" is a word that does Sanders absolutely no justice at all.

"He makes you miss so bad, you kind of look up in the stands and wonder if anybody's looking at you," Atlanta Falcons cornerback D.J. Johnson once remarked. "You've got 60,000 people in there and you wonder if anyone saw you miss that tackle."

Sanders was also a first- or second-team All-Pro ten consecutive seasons and became the first NFL running back to record five 1,500-yard rushing seasons, in addition to being the only back to do so in four consecutive seasons (1994-1997).

Had he not retired prematurely - because of numerous, atrocious Lions teams - he would have certainly surpassed Payton's career rushing total and may have set the bar so high that no one would have passed it anytime soon. As it stands right now, Sanders was still good enough to become the second best running back of all-time.

Jim Brown
Just like the two aforementioned running backs, Jim Brown was in a class of his own. Sure there have been other "big" backs to leave their mark on the game, but none like Brown - who retired waaaaay to early at age 30.

I could get into his career numbers of 12,312 rushing yards and 15,459 combined net yards, but that would not do Brown any justice at all. All I can say about Brown is that he possessed a combination of power and speed and agility that had never been seen before - and has only been duplicated by one running back since if you ask me (Earl Campbell).

Brown could outrun, outsmart or just plain overpower any defender - or team - anytime he wanted.

Brown was a unanimous first-team All-NFL pick eight times and played in nine Pro Bowls in nine years. Brown was unanimously named the Rookie of the Year in 1957 and earned league MVP honors four times (1957, 1958, 1963, and 1965).

As extraordinary as Brown's statistics were, his durability may have been even more amazing. Despite a constant pounding from defenses always stacked against him, Brown never missed a game in nine years - and remains to this day the best running back of all-time in the minds of many.

O.J. Simpson
I think a lot of younger people may only remember O.J. for his infamous homicide trial over a decade ago, however, I remember O.J. when he was truly the best running back in the NFL.

I'm also not ashamed to say that I spent many a day in the early 1970s playing football pretending to be O.J. Anyone who knows a thing about football knows Simpson was one of the best running backs ever - and the first player to rush for 2,000 yards in an NFL season, in 14 games no less.

In 11 seasons Simpson rushed for 11,236 yards, added another 2,142 yards on 203 pass receptions,

In 1973 Simpson became the first running back in history to rush for over 2,000 yards with 419 yards in his last two games that year, to finish with a staggering total of 2,003 yards. Once again, in only 14 games, many of which were played in the freezing cold and snowy conditions of Buffalo's Rich Stadium.

Simpson also led the league in rushing in 1972, 1973, 1975 and 1976. He was named NFL Player of the Year in 1972, 1973 and 1975 and was both All-AFC and All-Pro five straight years from 1972 through 1976.

I don't care what anybody says - barring all homicide-related incidents, Simpson was "The Juice" - and one of the best running back in NFL history.

Gale Sayers
Sure, there are other running backs whose numbers are far more impressive, but I think most knowledgeable football observers know that Sayers was one of the game's best running backs - and the most versatile. If Sayers' career - which was riddled with several devastating injuries - had lasted longer, who knows how many records he would have set.

As a rookie Sayers once scored a record-tying six touchdowns against the San Francisco 49ers. The variety he used that day included an 80-yard pass-run play, a 50-yard rush and a 65-yard punt return. For the entire season, he scored 22 touchdowns and 132 points, both then-rookie records.

In his relatively short career, he compiled 9,435 combined net yards, 4,956 yards rushing, and 336 points scored. At the time of his retirement he was the NFL's all-time leader in kickoff returns. Sayers earned All-NFL honors five consecutive years and was named Offensive Player of the Game in three of the four Pro Bowls in which he played.

Incredibly, three of my top five best running backs of all-time had careers that could have lasted considerably longer if things had turned out differently. No matter, these five running backs still managed to spin, overpower, bulldoze and magically make would-be tacklers look foolish in running their respective selves into the NFL Hall of Fame and into my top five of best running backs in NFL history.

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