Running backs in the NFL used to be expected to be the workhorse in an era before pass-first offenses took over, but that has drastically changed over time. Although the backs of old carried a heavier load, they were also more durable than many modern rushers.
There are many different types of running backs, including quick, smaller backs like Adrian Peterson or Eric Dickerson, versatile backs who are skilled pass catchers like Marshall Faulk or LaDanian Tomlinson, and powerful backs who easily break tackles like Earl Campbell or Jim Brown. Ranking the greatest NFL rock carriers ever is a difficult task given the variety in the league. View our list…
#15 Thurman Thomas
Thurman Thomas was a back with two distinct strengths who excelled in both the running and passing games. During his tenure, the 1991 league MVP rushed for more than 1,000 yards eight times in a row and was selected for five Pro Bowls. Thomas was a cornerstone in the Buffalo Bills’ four consecutive Super Bowl appearances, despite the fact that he never won a championship.
Over the course of his career, Thomas accrued 4,000 yards receiving and over 12,000 yards rushing. He amassed 23 touchdowns through the air and 65 on the ground, and in 2007 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
#14 Curtis Martin
With the exception of his final season, Curtis Martin ran for more than 1,000 yards each of his other seasons. In his 11 seasons of play in New England and New York, he was selected to the Pro Bowl five times. In 2004, when he rushed for more than 1,600 yards, he was an All-Pro.
Over the course of his career, Martin racked up more than 14,000 yards on the ground and scored 90 rushing touchdowns. In 2012, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. He also caught 484 passes for a total of more than 3,000 yards.
#13 Tony Dorsett
Tony Dorsett played 12 seasons for the Cowboys and Broncos and was a four-time Pro Bowl selection for Dallas. Every time he touched the ball, he posed a threat of scoring. He was a productive running back for the entirety of his career, rushing for more than 1,000 yards in 7 seasons.
With more than 12,000 rushing yards and 77 rushing touchdowns, Dorsett had a successful career. With over 3,000 receiving yards and 13 touchdown catches, he was also a proficient pass catcher and was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
#12 Marcus Allen
For most NFL players, let alone a running back, Marcus Allen’s 16-year professional career is pretty unheard of. His winning Rookie of the Year in 1982 gave his career a great start. Over the course of his career, he carried the ball more than 3,000 times and gained more than 12,000 rushing yards. He caught 587 passes for more than 5,400 receiving yards on the receiving end.
Allen was primarily known for scoring touchdowns, and he did so frequently. He scored 123 times while running and 21 times while receiving during his career. With the Raiders, he won a Super Bowl, and in 2003, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
#11 O.J. Simpson
O.J. Simpson was one of the greatest players ever while he was playing, though his post-football years saw him become more notorious. He has rushed for more than 1,500 yards three times and is one of the few to do so in a season. He led the league in rushing four times and was named to the All-Pro team five seasons in a row.
Over 11,000 rushing yards and 61 rushing touchdowns were amassed by Simpson. He also added more than 2,000 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns. Before ending his career in San Francisco, the Hall of Famer played for 11 seasons, the majority of which he spent with Buffalo.
#10 Adrian Peterson
The ageless wonder Adrian Peterson always seems to have a little more to give. Even after missing the entire 2014 season due to an ACL tear, he has endured a number of severe injuries throughout his career but always manages to recover. He joined a select group of players in 2012 by having a 2,000 yard season.
Over the course of his career, Peterson has rushed for more than 13,000 yards and scored 106 touchdowns while carrying the ball. He was the league MVP in 2012, was selected to seven Pro Bowls, and three times led the league in rushing. It will just be a matter of waiting for the call from the Hall of Fame after he puts his cleats away for good.
#9 Earl Campbell
Even though Earl Campbell’s career was short, he made a lot of noise during it. His career was cut short by injuries, but he ran for more than 9,000 yards and was known for spectacular breaks. Over his career, he amassed 74 rushing touchdowns.
His first three seasons stand out because he rushed for more than 3,000 yards and 40 touchdowns. Campbell received three Player of the Year honors in addition to an MVP award. In 1991, he was admitted as a member of the Canton Hall of Fame.
#8 Eric Dickerson
When Eric Dickerson made his debut in 1983 with more than 1,800 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns, he was named the Rookie of the Year. His second season was when he joined the 2,000 season yard club. Over 1,200 rushing yards were amassed in each of his first seven professional seasons.
Dickerson amassed more than 13,000 yards and 90 rushing touchdowns in the end. His career was hampered by injuries in the latter years, but he was five times named to the All-Pro team. In 1999, Dickerson was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
#7 Gale Sayers
If Gale Sayers had played in the present day, he would have become an internet sensation. His lightning-quick runs and kickoff returns are still legendary. He only played for seven seasons, but in the 1960s, he was Chicago’s most important player.
During his brief career, Sayers rushed for more than 4,900 yards and caught passes for more than 1,300 yards. He amassed more than 2,700 yards and 6 touchdowns on kickoff returns. He also scored twice while returning punts for 391 yards.
#6 Marshall Faulk
Another dual threat running back who dominated the fantasy football scene for those who were fortunate enough to draft him was Marshall Faulk. The explosive player scored touchdowns frequently throughout his career, finishing with 100 rushing scores and another 36 receiving scores.
Throughout his career, he amassed over 12,000 rushing yards, 6,000 receiving yards, and was selected for 3 All-Pro teams in addition to 7 Pro Bowls. He played a significant role in the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams squad that won the Super Bowl. 2011 saw the induction of the 2000 MVP into the Hall of Fame.
#5 LaDainian Tomlinson
Another back who was outstanding at both running and catching was LaDainian Tomlinson. He was one of the most dynamic dual-purpose backs, scoring 10 or more touchdowns in nine straight seasons.
During his time there, Tomlinson ran for more than 13,000 years and scored 145 goals. He had over 4,000 yards and 17 touchdowns as a great receiver. He received five Pro Bowl selections and an MVP honor. Tomlinson was chosen to the Hall of Fame in 2017 after he hung up the phone.
#4 Walter Payton
“Sweetness” was Walter Payton’s nick name, and it was the ideal fit for him. The Bears team from 1985 is regarded as one of the best ever, and the Chicago legend was its workhorse. With over 3,800 carries and 492 receptions over the course of his career, he carried a heavy load.
Payton had more than 16,000 rushing yards and 4,500 receiving yards at the end of his protracted career. He added 15 receiving touchdowns to his 110 rushing touchdowns. His name is still uttered by Chicago Bears supporters in mythic tones.
Want to read some more fun stuff? Read about NFL Players Who Ultimately Failed in Their Carrers.
#3 Emmitt Smith
Emmitt Smith served as one of the catalysts for the three Super Bowl-winning Dallas teams in the 1990s. He played for 15 seasons, four of which saw him set league rushing records. He received an MVP award and was selected for 8 Pro Bowl teams.
Smith has rushed for more than 18,000 yards and 165 touchdowns in his career. Additionally, he hauled in more than 500 passes for more than 3,000 yards. In 1995, he had his best season, rushing for more than 1,700 yards and 25 touchdowns. In 2010, he got the call from the Hall of Fame.
#2 Barry Sanders
For the Detroit Lions, Barry Sanders personified electricity. We can only speculate as to what his career stats would have been had he decided to continue playing since he left the field with what appeared to be plenty of gas left in the tank. Amazingly, he played in every season and made the Pro Bowl.
With more than 15,000 rushing yards and 99 rushing touchdowns, Sanders had a successful career. He is possibly the first legendary football video game character, and many controllers have been broken in an effort to stop the virtual Sanders. On his way to being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004, he won two Offensive Player of the Year awards and the MVP.
#1 Jim Brown
Jim Brown played for nine seasons before quitting the game before turning 30 to pursue an acting career. However, those nine years in Cleveland were legendary. He received three MVP honors and was an All-Pro eight times.
During his brief career, Brown rushed for more than 12,000 yards and scored 106 rushing touchdowns. During his career, he added 2,500 receiving yards and hauled in 20 touchdowns. The Hall of Famer is regarded as one of the all-time best players in both college lacrosse and football.