Best NFL Running Backs Of All Time: Top 5 Rushing Legends, According To Fans

The running back position in football is one of the most important positions on the field. Teams utilize a strong running game to control the clock and set up the passing aspect of their offense. Undoubtedly, the National Football League (NFL) has seen some amazing running backs over the years, but which players qualify to be called the best NFL running backs of all time? 

Before we dive into the list of the best running backs in NFL history, let’s take a moment to appreciate the dedication of sports fans. A recent study found that the average sports fan is willing to travel and spend good money to watch their favorite team play in person. A survey of 2,000 self-identified sports fanatics examined the lengths people are willing to go to in order to watch their favorite sports team play in person. The survey found that the average fan is willing to travel a whopping five hours and 48 minutes plus spend $762.20 on tickets just to see their favorite team play live. Sounds like a great way to spend a vacation and celebrate your fandom at the same time.

Traveling to professional sporting events is nothing new for Americans. We love our sports and we’re loyal to our teams. However, another recent study suggests that simply getting out to watch a live sports event – whether it’s professional or amateur sports – is beneficial for your mental health. Scientists at Anglia Ruskin University say that attending live sporting events actually helps increase overall mental well-being and reduces feelings of loneliness. A survey of 7,000 adults found that those respondents who attended live sporting events scored better in terms of life satisfaction than those who had not recently attended events. That’s definitely a great reason to get out and watch your favorite NFL running backs carve up defenses in the fall. 

So, which NFL running backs are considered the GOATs? StudyFinds did some homework, consulting 10 sports and football-related websites in an effort to bring you the best NFL running backs of all time. Our list comprises the five most frequently listed running backs from across these sites. Think your favorite rusher got snubbed? Feel free to share your thoughts with us in the comments section below! 

NFL logo and a wall of footballs
NFL logo (Photo by Adrian Curiel on Unsplash)

The List: Best NFL Running Backs, According to Experts

1. Jim Brown

The top spot on the list of the best NFL running backs of all time belongs to the late, great, Jim Brown. He played college ball at Syracuse before being drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the late ‘50s

NFL all-time running back Jim Brown
Jim Brown at LBJ Foundation 2014 (cropped)” by LBJ Foundation is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

“In an era when defenses were built to stop the run, Brown dominated them all. He is the only running back in the history of the NFL to average more than 100 yards rushing per game (104.3). He also holds the NFL record for career yards per carry (5.2). Brown was an eight-time NFL rushing champion, a four-time NFL MVP and he was selected as an All-Pro eight times during his Hall of Fame career. He only played nine seasons, yet he is still arguably the greatest running back in any era of professional football,” writes Athlon Sports

Jim Brown’s career average of 100 yards per game will never be surpassed. In today’s NFL, teams simply don’t run the ball enough to allow for an average as high as Brown’s 100 per game. Perhaps more impressive than Brown’s 100 yards per game is his 5.2 average yards per carry. “With all-around numbers that were unheard of for his time, as well as an unbelievable rushing average of 5.2 yards to carry, all within a greatly shortened career, Jim Brown is undoubtedly the greatest running back of all time,” adds Bleacher Report

Jim Brown’s career was short, especially when you compare it with some of the other all-time greats on this list. Jim Brown left the Cleveland Browns after nine amazing seasons. Jim Brown retired from the NFL to work on his Hollywood acting career. Still, Jim Brown is considered by most to be the best running back in NFL history.  

“Brown only played nine years, but the Browns running back was arguably the best player in the league in all nine seasons from 1957-1965. He made the Pro Bowl in every season and was an All-Pro eight times, leading the league in rushing yards in each of those All-Pro campaigns. He won three MVPs, and his career 5.2 yards per rush still rank third all time among running backs,” adds Yardbarker

2. Emmitt Smith

Next up on the list of the best NFL running backs of all time is three-time Super Bowl champion Emmitt Smith. He spearheaded the vaunted Cowboys offense of the ‘90s and he’s a huge reason why those teams were so successful. Emmitt is the NFL’s all-time leading rusher with over 18,000 yards. 

“The legendary RB joined the Cowboys in the 1990 NFL Draft as the 11th overall pick. He holds the record for the most rushing attempts, yards, and touchdowns. Smith also won three Super Bowl titles, a Super Bowl MVP, and a regular season MVP,” says Sports Brief

Smith racked up yards and accolades throughout his NFL career. He played for two teams – the Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals. In all, he ran for over 160 touchdowns and compiled over 18,000 rushing yards. 

“Emmitt Smith’s extraordinary talent for dismantling opposing defences sets him apart as the unrivalled all-time leading rusher in NFL history. Moreover, his 164 career rushing touchdowns are unmatched, coupled with the incredible feat of over 1,000 rushing yards in a season a staggering 11 times, setting a record for the most seasons with such an achievement. Now, Smith was a force individually, but his impact also extended to team success,” furthers The Sporting Blog

Again, today’s NFL is so pass-centric that no one foresees another running back coming close to Emmitt Smith’s all-time rushing record. There will likely never be another running back capable of producing the way Emmitt Smith produced over the course of his illustrious career

“To date, Emmitt Smith is the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, so there is no question he’s one of the best running backs of all time. He’s also the all-time leader in rush attempts and rushing touchdowns. Of course, he played 14 seasons, which is a much longer shelf-life than most NFL running backs. But Smith is also undersized, so the fact that he was able to show such longevity is impressive. He also led the NFL in rushing four times, won MVP honors in 1993, and was a huge part of the Cowboys winning three Super Bowls,” explains Franchise Sports

3. Walter Payton

Diving his way into the third spot on the list of the best NFL running backs is none other than “Sweetness,” Walter Payton. The Chicago Bears legend is one of the most beloved athletes in the history of Chicago sports. At the time of his retirement, Walter Payton was the NFL’s all-time leading rusher and a true icon for the great sport of football.  

Walter Payton statue outside of Soldier Field, home to the Chicago Bears
Walter Payton statue outside of Soldier Field, home to the Chicago Bears (Photo by Hendrickson Photography on Shutterstock)

“Payton spent all 13 years of his Hall-of-Fame career in Chicago after being selected fourth overall in the 1975 NFL draft. Every season, a player who shows a charitable heart off the field is awarded the Walter Payton Man of the Year award. Players are often added to ‘all-time great lists’ simply because of their off-the-field work, but Payton has the real resume to place him second all-time among running backs,” furthers RotoBaller

Payton was a true humanitarian and one of the best people the NFL world has ever known. Unfortunately, he passed in the mid-’90s, but his legacy as one of the best to ever wear an NFL uniform lives on. Payton could run, catch, and even throw the football with elegance and grace. “Walter Payton was one of the better all-around backs to ever play the game. With great success rushing the ball as well as catching it, Payton easily deserves the No. 2 spot on my list,” explains Bleacher Report

Payton played for some historically bad Bears teams in Chicago, and there were times when opposing defenses simply ganged up to stop him. So, when the Bears hired Mike Ditka and became a powerhouse in the mid-’80s, Sweetness finally got his shot at glory. Payton’s Bears won Super Bowl XX (20) by a big margin over the New England Patriots, and the all-time legend finally had a Super Bowl championship to go along with all of his other amazing accomplishments.  

“Sweetness blended elite ability and longevity to make himself the NFL’s all-time leading rusher before Smith passed him. Payton had 10 seasons of at least 1,500 yards from scrimmage, with four of those being over 2,000 yards. He was explosive, powerful, and elusive. He had the balance and the determination to shed, spin off, or run through tackles. He’s not just one of the best running backs of all time — he’s one of the greatest players in NFL history. It’s what makes the top three on this list so difficult to place,” adds Pro Football Network

4. Barry Sanders

Bouncing his way into the fourth spot on the list of the NFL’s best running backs is the living legend, Barry Sanders. He won a Heisman while he was at Oklahoma St. University and that greatness carried over into Barry’s NFL career. Barry Sanders is one of the most elusive runners the NFL has ever seen. 

“Sanders was arguably the most exciting player to watch in NFL history. He seemed to defy the laws of physics and escape the seemingly impossible. The Hall of Fame back is still fourth on the career rushing list, despite playing just 10 seasons. He took home two NFL MVP awards (1991, ’97), four NFL rushing titles (’90, ’94, ’96, ’97), and he was selected to play in the Pro Bowl all 10 seasons. He also holds countless records in a career that many believe ended too soon,” explains Athlon Sports

Barry Sanders was beyond exciting to watch as an NFL fan. Barry could do things on the football field that fans had never seen before, and we’ll probably never see again. 

“We may never see someone move the way he did ever again in the NFL. Sanders was one with the turf. He was the move he was about to make. There was no thought or preparation in his movements, just action. Sanders was the ultimate improvisation actor. He was a magician. Sanders was everything, and then like Keyser Söze, just like that, poof, he was gone,” raves Pro Football Network

If you met Barry Sanders on the street, you’d probably think he’s too small to be an all-time great NFL running back. You’d be wrong. Despite his stature, Barry Sanders was a powerful running back with the ability to run around, over, and through NFL defenders. 

“While undersized, Barry Sanders had as much shake, wiggle, and elegance as any running back to ever play in the NFL. His ability to stop on a dime and change directions might never be matched by any other running back. Yet, he only decided to play 10 seasons, going to the Pro Bowl in all 10 of those seasons while leading the league in rushing four times. Sanders also won MVP honors in 1997, his penultimate season. Over his 10 years, Sanders averaged over 1,500 yards per season, and if he had played just one more year and hit that average, he would have retired as the all-time leading rusher,” explains Franchise Sports

5. LaDanian Tomlinson 

Rounding out the list of the best running backs in NFL history is Chargers legend, LaDanian Tomlinson. He moved like Barry Sanders and had the receiving ability of Walter Payton. Tomlinson was truly a complete, all-around running back who dominated the NFL’s best defenses for over a decade. 

“LaDainian Tomlinson, famously known as ‘L.T.,’ is widely regarded as one of the greatest running backs in NFL history. Boasting impressive career stats of 13,684 rushing yards, 145 rushing touchdowns, 624 receptions, 4,772 receiving yards and a total of 162 touchdowns, Tomlinson’s impact on the field was undeniable. He holds numerous records, including the single-season rushing touchdown record of 28 and the record for consecutive games with a touchdown, spanning 18 games,” explains The Sporting Blog

Tomlinson scored a staggering 28 rushing touchdowns in a single season, which is an NFL record that will likely never be touched. Similar to Walter Payton, Tomlinson could rush the ball, catch the ball, and throw the ball, if he had to. He had a whopping seven passing touchdowns over the course of his career – one shy of Walter Payton’s record of eight touchdown passes for non-quarterbacks. 

“My generation’s Sanders was LT — the most electric player in the league during his time, and I don’t believe it was particularly close. LaDainian Tomlinson is easily one of the best running backs of all time. He’s also one of the reasons I love football and one of the reasons why the powder blue Chargers jerseys are the greatest ever…  He was as explosive and fluid as they come, and he even had a season catching 100 passes in 2003. The 5-foot-10, 221-pound back could do it all as a runner. He had the power to devastate defenders with a stiff arm and the speed to break away. Most of all, he possessed a devastating ability to change direction. Tomlinson is second in all-time rushing touchdowns,” raves Pro Football Network

His career started off with a bang and never looked back. In all, Tomlinson played 11 NFL seasons with the San Diego Chargers and the New York Jets. Unfortunately, fans never got to see him play in a Super Bowl, but his will to win was always on display. 

“LT’s career started with eight straight seasons with at least 1,100 yards rushing and 1,500 yards from scrimmage before injuries started to take their toll. During his 11 seasons between the Chargers and Jets, Tomlinson led the league in rushing twice and rushing touchdowns three times. The five-time Pro Bowler won the 2006 MVP with a record-breaking 28 touchdowns, and he’s third all time with 162 touchdowns for his career. Tomlinson’s 13,684 rushing yards still rank sixth,” furthers Yardbarker

You might also be interested in: 


Note: This article was not paid for nor sponsored. StudyFinds is not connected to nor partnered with any of the brands mentioned and receives no compensation for its recommendations. This post may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.


  1. The list is good overall. I would put Earl Campbell second overall (Tomlinson is top ten, but not close to top five). Gayle Sayers had better moves than Sanders, and was faster. He is the best “pure halfback”, to ever play. The only argument against Sayers is his short career, due to his severe knee injuries. Jim Brown was in a class by himself. He was the “greatest of the greats”!!

    1. I Don’t know where these people got this study from, but there is No Way Emmitt Smith is above Walter Payton or Barry Sanders. Regardless of how many yards he ran for.

      1. Agree. I’m not a Smith fan for several reasons: the first being the great O-lines he ran behind for a decade or better; the second being the great offense he was in (he’s always spoken of as part of the 3 playmakers in Dallas); and lastly the years he played over all the others mentioned. And those 3 reasons are the same problems with Brady being GOAT, but I’d add the coach, the favoritism, the good defenses, the questionable ethics with NE organization. I would include both as top 5 at their position based on numbers only. But if I were picking those positions based on my own wants, neither would be there. My top 5 rbs looks like Brown as #1, then in some order: Barry Sanders, Gayle Sayers, Earl Campbell, and either Payton or Dickerson. Hopefully in 3 or 4 years D. Henry will replace Dickerson at the least.

    2. That’s are good list it was so many Earl just ran over people here is my list
      1.Jim Brown 2. Barry Sanders 3. Earl Campbell 4. Gayle Sayers 5.E. Smith honorable mention LT, Marcus Allen,

      1. Yes , They were good but why does everyone forget about Frank Gore his numbers surpass everyone except Emmit and Walter. And did it while on a mediocre 49rs teams at best .

    3. Sanders was miles ahead of Brown and by far #1. He’s in a class ALONE. Sanders kills Sayers

  2. Eric Dickerson!? Big, fast, strong, record season of yards gained and longevity… Better than Smith and LT…

  3. Worthless I’ve seen in a long time Jim Brown was running over 510 white linebackers Emmitt Smith was garbage playing behind the best offensive line ever in the NFL how about you recheck it Walter Payton Barry Sanders the l Tomlinson that who needs to be at the top
    How dare anybody put Emmitt smith at the top of any list he’s not even top 10.

  4. Agree with you Earl Campbell definitely needs to be in top 5. After Brown there are many who have an argument to be in the top 5.

  5. O.J.
    Regardless of his history after football, the Juice rushed for 2003 yards in a 14 game season in 1975; four rushing titles and three times NFL player of the year.

  6. I think Marshall Faulk was better than Tomlinson. He had more all purpose yards than Tomlinson. He was first running back to have 4 consecutive 2000 yard seasons. I believe he has the most recieving yards from a running back. He was a Superbowl champion. Basically these two backs were quite similar but Marshall has more all purpose yards and a ring.

  7. Don’t you ever talk shit about Barry, you crazy, no one on this list has a highlight package like Barry going back to college even, so stop, Lions had a shitty offensive line and team

  8. Jim Brown , Eric Dickerson, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders,Gail Sayers, OJ Simpson, Jim Taylor,

Comments are closed.