Top 5 NFL Running Backs of All Time

Top 5 NFL Running Backs of All Time

#5 LaDainian Tomlinson

Games Played: 170
Rush Attempts: 3,174
Rushing Yards: 13,684
Rushing Touchdowns: 145
Receptions: 624
Receiving Yards: 4,772
Receiving Touchdowns: 17
MVP: 1

* “LT” LaDainian Tomlinson is the second best receiving back (after Marshall Faulk, just ahead of Curtis Martin) to ever play. LT managed to record 50 receptions in 9 of his 11 illustrious seasons, and completed 8 of 12 pass attempts in his career (7 of which for touchdowns). Of the other four backs listed here, only Emmitt Smith tallied more than 500 receptions and he still trails Tomlinson by over 100. Running, catching, and passing, Tomlinson is easily the most versatile back to ever play. 

#4 Emmitt Smith

Photo Credit: Zuma Press

Games Played: 226
Rush Attempts: 4409
Rushing Yards: 18,355
Rushing Touchdowns: 164
Receptions: 515
Receiving Yards: 3,224
Receiving Touchdowns: 11
Super Bowl Champ: 3
MVP: 1

* Emmitt Smith was the beneficiary of the greatest offensive line ever assembled (Nate Newton, Mark Stepnoski, John Gesek, Kevin Gogan, and Larry Allen). Combine this unstoppable fortress with his hall of fame fullback (Daryl “Moose” Johnston) there’s no wonder he tallied video game like statistics. Though his average yard per carry and average yardage per game totals remain unimpressive compared to the other greats listed, his longevity is the most impressive aspect of his storied career. Smith was a workhorse, and operated as the primary (every down) back in Dallas during their reign of invincibility in the 90s. The age-old saying is true when referencing Smith: “the best ability is availability.” If Smith transcended the talent around him, he would deserve a higher ranking on this list. 

#3 Walter Payton

Games Played: 190
Rush Attempts: 3,838
Rushing Yards: 16,726
Rushing Touchdowns: 110
Receptions: 492
Receiving Yards: 4,538
Receiving Touchdowns: 15
Super Bowl Champ: 1
MVP: 1

* Hardest working back in the business. Walter Payton is the standard bearer of work ethic! Payton was one of the most dangerous open field backs to defend because of his ability to run through, around, or by defenders. He played with a ferocity that made tackling him individually an impossible proposition. Payton’s forward momentum alone carried him to the secondary, where he’d exert more punishment on defensive backs.  

#2 Jim Brown

Games Played: 118
Rush Attempts: 2,359
Rushing Yards: 12,312
Rushing Touchdowns: 106
Receptions: 262
Receiving Yards: 2,499
Receiving Touchdowns: 20
MVP: 3

* Jim Brown reinvented the running back position. Playing in an era devoid of superior talent, Brown was in a class all his own whenever he stepped onto the field. He was the strongest and fastest player on the field every game. After completing a dominant nine-year career, Brown averaged more than 100 yards per game – a feat not accomplished by another player since and Brown retired over 50 years ago!

#1 Barry Sanders

Photo Credit: San Diego Chargers

Games Played: 153
Rush Attempts: 3,062
Rushing Yards: 15,269
Rushing Touchdowns: 99
Receptions: 352
Receiving Yards: 2,921
Receiving Touchdowns: 10
MVP: 1

* There is no debate over who the most elusive back is – Barry Sanders, but that was just one part of his game that shined above everyone else. Sanders singlehandedly carried a depleted Detroit Lions team on his back for his entire ten-year career. Due to poor line play, Sanders was often forced to utilize his agility to avoid tacklers two yards deep in the backfield. No player in NFL history ever accomplished more with less talent around him. Despite being surrounded by a band of misfits, Sanders managed to rush for at least 1,100 yards every year of his career. He even eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark in 1997. His lack of blazing speed is never viewed as a setback considering would be tacklers still needed to find a way to tackle Sanders once they caught him. Sanders mastered the “jump cut” “spin” and “juke” taking those moves to entirely new levels. His combination of power, elusiveness, and pure playmaking ability set him apart from even the all-time greats.

Honorable Mentions:


• Eric Dickerson

Games Played: 146
Rush Attempts: 2,996
Rushing Yards: 13,259
Rushing Touchdowns: 90
Receptions: 281
Receiving Yards: 2,137
Receiving Touchdowns: 6

Photo Credit:

• Bo Jackson 

Rush Attempts: 515
Rushing Yards: 2,782
Rushing Touchdowns: 16
Receptions: 40
Receiving Yards: 352
Receiving Touchdowns: 2

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