Ranking the top running backs in league history has become one of the most controversial tasks for those who have tried. There is an elite group of guys who are widely considered as the top-10 running backs in the history of the league, and most of those often considered to be in the top show up on this list.
Recording more than 10,000 rushing yards is a feat that only 29 running backs have accomplished. Many of those guys are in the Hall of Fame, and many more will soon be part of the Hall.
Let’s face it. Most of these guys are deserving of being in the conversation as part of the top-30 running backs in NFL history. Sure, there are guys who might have been more talented who have rushed for less yards, and there are other guys who also deserve a spot in the NFL’s top-30 best running backs of all time.
But 10,000 rushing yards is among the NFL’s best milestones. It’s an elusive mark that makes an elusive running back. Some guys reach that milestone because of a lengthy career. For running backs, though, a lengthy career is a great accomplishment.
Running backs are beat to heck, more than most guys on the field. So, the longer they’re able to stay in and compete, the more deserving they are of being grouped among the league’s greatest players. With this list, we take a look at, and rank from worst to best, the 29 running backs in league history who have recorded more than 10,000 career rushing yards.
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29 TIKI BARBER, 10,449
Tiki Barber had a rare ability compared to most running backs in NFL history. Barber actually got better as he aged. He rushed for 1,000-plus yards in each of his final five seasons. Unfortunately, Barber isn’t higher on the list because he had a knack for fumbling the ball, except for the final two years of his career when he finally learned to keep that ball secure.
Except for his final two years, and except for his first two years when he didn’t play much, Barber fumbled the ball an average of nearly eight times each season. Barber did have six seasons with more than 1,000 rushing yards, but in his first five seasons, he did that just once. Barber just didn’t have a full record of work to match up against the other guys on this list.
28 RICKY WILLIAMS, 10,009
Ricky Williams barely made the cut and doesn’t deserve to be on a list with the guys who follow. But Williams somehow managed more than 10,000 rushing yards, and was really good at times, so he deserves a bit of praise. But it’s tough to root for a guy who retired just a few years after joining the league. In 2004, after testing positive for marijuana, Williams chose to retire rather than face a four-game suspension.
Williams returned and apologized in 2005. Then, in 2006 he failed another drug test and was suspended for an entire season so he took his talents to the CFL. Williams did have one Pro Bowl season where he rushed for 1,853 yards, 16 touchdowns and averaged 115.8 yards a game. But other than that, he had a very average to below-average career.
27 THOMAS JONES, 10,591
Early in his career, Thomas Jones seemed like a bust. But Jones would eventually prove to be a consistent back. Through his first three years in the league, Jones averaged about 400 yards a season. Though, he wasn’t getting many opportunities. It wasn’t until his fifth season when he got a meaningful amount of carries and he rushed 240 times for 948 yards. He followed that up with five-straight 1,000-yard seasons, but was a very inconsistent scorer.
He had a flash of greatness in 2008 and 2009, when he was selected to the Pro Bowl in the ’08 season and followed up with 1,402 yards and 14 touchdowns in ’09. Although Jones played in 13 seasons, he doesn’t match up well with the guys who follow.
26 EDDIE GEORGE, 10,441
Eddie George had one of the shortest careers when compared to the guys on this list. He began in 1996 and competed in the NFL through the 2004 season. Surprisingly, George shouldn’t have stayed in the league that long. And in a way, his final season hurt his reputation. George was a four-time Pro Bowler and was the Offensive Player of the Year in 1996. He even had seven 1,000-plus yard rushing seasons.
But he just couldn’t prove to hold up long in the league. After a dismal 2004 season with the Cowboys (he played in 13 games and rushed for 432 yards and four touchdowns), he was essentially done. George officially retired in 2006. If he could have played a couple more seasons, or even added one more 1,000-yard season, his stock would have raised greatly. But instead, he sits near the bottom of the list.
25 OTTIS ANDERSON, 10,273
Running backs notoriously have shorter careers because they get beat the heck up. Somehow, Ottis Anderson managed a 16-season career even though he was beat up and bruised along the way. He began with six 1,000-yard seasons and remained a consistent back for the entirety of his career. Though he did deal with injuries, which kept him from creeping higher up on this list.
Anderson was the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1979 and was part of two Super Bowl winning teams. He was the MVP of the second Super Bowl game, so, without a doubt, Anderson played up to expectations after he was drafted eighth overall by the St. Louis Cardinals. Upon retirement, he was ranked seventh in rushing touchdowns and eighth in rushing yards.
24 JAMAL LEWIS, 10,607
Jamal Lewis was powerful and flashy at the same time. He managed more than 1,000 rushing yards seven times in his 10-year career (2000-2009) and he even had a 2,000-yard rushing season in 2003. But that 2003 season was the only one where Lewis made the Pro Bowl. It was more than deserved as he averaged 129 rushing yards per game that season. Lewis finished his career with an average of 81 yards per game.
Part of the problem with Lewis was that the league was littered with running backs who could catch out of the backfield, but he never proved to handle that task. By the end of his career he averaged just 1.7 receptions and only 14 receiving yards per game. He totaled 58 rushing touchdowns in 10 seasons but just four receiving touchdowns.
23 STEVEN JACKSON, 11,438
Once Steven Jackson took over as the Rams starting running back in 2005, he tore up defenses on the way to eight-straight seasons with more than 1,000 rushing yards. Jackson was a three-time Pro Bowler, but his best season was in 2006 when he rushed for more than 1,500 yards and 13 touchdowns. That year he totaled 2,334 yards when you combine his receptions.
If Jackson were able to post a couple more 1,000 yard seasons, he would have been higher up on the list. But when you look at the list of running backs who managed more than 10,000 career rushing yards, Jackson lines up near the bottom. But he still did beat out some of the guys to eclipse the elusive rushing mark.
22 FRED TAYLOR, 11,695
Although Fred Taylor played longer than a lot of guys on this list (1998-2010), his finally three seasons didn’t add much to his stat totals. Taylor was drafted by the Jaguars with the ninth overall pick. Unfortunately, injuries kept Taylor off the field for a good chunk of his first four seasons. Though the two years that he started more than 10 games in those early years, he rushed for more than 1,000 yards, which he did seven times in his career.
In 2000, when he played 13 games and rushed for 1,399 yards, he averaged about 108 yards per game. However, that was the only time in his career he averaged that many rushing yards (he finished with a 76 yard per game average).
21 WARRICK DUNN, 10,967
Warrick Dunn was a small guy compared to the rest of the guys showing up in the backfield. He was 5’9’’ and 187 pounds but that was likely part of the reason he played so hard and tough. But he was very threatening out of the backfield, whether he was rushing or running routes.
Although Dunn was never part of a championship team, he was named the Offensive Rookie of the Year and was selected to the Pro Bowl three times. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards five times in his career, but his receiving ability separates him from the previous running backs. Dunn has tallied up more than 4,000 receiving yards in his 12-year career and more than 15,000 total yards. Not bad for a guy who a lot of people considered too small for the NFL.
20 RICKY WATTERS, 10,643
In 10 seasons, Ricky Watters managed 1,000 rushing yards seven times. Watters made the Pro Bowl during his rookie season, and followed that up four more times in the next four seasons (was a Pro Bowl selection 1992-1996). Watters was also part of a Super Bowl winning team, and he scored three touchdowns in that ring-winning game. Watters had a pretty good career but failed to get voted into the Hall of Fame partly because of a lack of professional demeanor mixed with his stats that were right on the line between great and good.
Watters also posted 4,248 receiving yards in his 10-year career. He was a 1,000-plus yard rusher in seven of his seasons. Unfortunately, he finished his career with a season of just five games played and barely more than 300 yards rushing. Like a lot of guys down here on the list, another one or two solid seasons would have drastically improved his position.
19 MARCUS ALLEN, 12,243
Marcus Allen was the first player to rush for more than 10,000 yards and more than 5,000 yards receiving. What might be more impressive is the fact that Allen played from 1982 until 1997. Allen ranks 13th in NFL history for rushing yards and is No. 3 for career rushing touchdowns. Allen did lead the league in rushing yards one season and touchdowns in another season, but his stats were too spread out to be among the elite running backs coming up.
Allen had a bunch of season where he scored just a handful of touchdowns and he didn’t rush for more than 1,000 yards after his fourth season. And his career averages are rough. Allen averaged just 55 rushing yards a game when it was all said and down. He did have more than 5,000 receiving yards in his career, but again, he averaged just 24 receiving yards a game.
18 FRANK GORE, 13,065
Not only is Frank Gore ranked eighth in terms of career rushing yards, he’s also the 49ers all-time leading rusher and rushing touchdowns leader. Gore is still active and has a good chance to add to these totals. Although Gore will never be in the conversation as the best every, another one or two seasons with 1,000 yards rushing can vault him well into the top-10 running backs and maybe even the top 5.
Gore currently has nine 1,000-yard rushing seasons, including one this past season. He doesn’t score a lot, but he’s been a reliable back who has a chance to continue this trend for at least another season or two. He may not be Hall of Fame worthy just yet, but he’s close and will get there if he can last a couple more seasons on a starting roster.
17 COREY DILLON, 11,241
Normally turning 30 kills a running backs career. Corey Dillon played three seasons after turning 30, and two of them were somewhat rough to finish off his career (though he was scoring 12 and 13 rushing touchdowns in those two seasons with the Patriots).
But the year Dillon turned 30, he crushed it. That was the year he was part of a Super Bowl winning New England team. During that season, Dillon rushed for 1,635 yards and 12 touchdowns and averaged 109 yards a game. Although that was the only season in his 10-year career that he averaged 100 yards a game rushing, he did tally seven 1,000-plus yard rushing season in his career, which included six-straight 1,000 yard seasons to start his career in Cincinatti. He was, no doubt, a powerful force for a good chunk of his career.
16 EDGERRIN JAMES, 12,246
There wasn’t anyone better when Edgerrin James first matched up with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. James burst into the NFL with 13 rushing touchdowns in each of his first two seasons while he rushed for 1,533 yards and then 1,709 yards. James performance during his rookie season earned him the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. During his first two seasons, he led the league in rushing and later included five-straight 1,000-yard seasons, though two of those seasons came with Arizona. He finished with four Pro Bowl selections in his 11-season career.
When you add up his total offensive yards, James finished with more than15,000 career yards. He bulled his way to 80 rushing touchdowns, which is the 19th best in league history and he ranks No. 12 in terms of career rushing yards.
15 JOHN RIGGINS, 11,352
John Riggins led the league in rushing twice and even had a season where he posted 24 rushing touchdowns (1983). But a lot of his success is attributed to a very lengthy career for a running back. Riggins spent 14 seasons in the NFL. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards just five times through his career.
However, Riggins is so high on the list because of his scoring ability. He finished his career with 104 rushing touchdowns, which is the sixth best in league history. With those numbers, it is surprising that only reached the Pro Bowl once. He was, however, a Super Bowl champion and was the Super Bowl MVP that year. Riggins was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992.
14 O.J. SIMPSON, 11,236
Without a doubt, O.J. Simpson will be remembered for his actions off the field, rather than the great things he did while playing in the NFL. Playing in just 14 games, Simpson became the first running back to rush for more than 2,000 yards in 1973. He was the league’s rushing leader four times in his career. Following a career that included five Pro Bowl appearances, Simpson was inducted to the Hall of Fame.
Although Simpson will forever be known for actions unrelated to football, he did average more than 100 yards per game rushing three times in his career. During his MVP-winning 1973 season, he averaged an insane 143 yards per game. Although Simpson was great, and he had some really dominant seasons, he also had a handful of not-so-good seasons. He was good, but a lot of guys on this list were better.
13 ADRIAN PETERSON, 11,747
Adrian Peterson has done some great things in his career. Peterson even ties a couple records with a couple of the league’s greats. He has six 200-plus yard rushing games (that’s tied with O.J. Simpson) and he has seven 50-plus yard runs in a single season (that’s tied with the great Barry Sanders). Peterson also has the most 60-plus yard touchdowns in his career (13). That’s just the tip of Peterson’s accomplishments. He was the MVP in 2012, he’s a three-time rushing yard leader and a two-time rushing touchdowns leader and has been selected to the Pro Bowl seven times.
But when looking at greatness, issues off the field must be factored in. In 2013, he was charged with reckless or negligent injury to a child and was suspended for the most of the 2014 season. So, he may be a great rusher, but not one of the greatest.
12 THURMAN THOMAS, 12,074
Thurman Thomas is another of the many Hall of Famers on this list. Thomas retired in 2001 and was inducted in 2007. That was a surprising conclusion given how Thomas’ career started. He would have certainly been a first round draft pick back in 1988, but he injured his knee and fell to the second round. Knee injuries linger with players, especially running backs and hang over their heads for years.
But after a mediocre first season, he followed up with eight-straight 1,000 yard seasons, and even led the league with 355 rushing attempts in 1993. Thomas was also selected to five-straight Pro Bowls after that rough rookie season. And in 1991, Thomas was the league’s MVP, then in 1992 Thomas was named the Offensive Player of the Year.
11 FRANCO HARRIS, 12,120
Franco Harris was one of the winningest running backs in NFL history. Well, he was listed as a full back for a majority of his career, but nonetheless, Harris ran the ball out of the backfield. So, for list purposes, we’ll consider Harris a running back. He won four Super Bowls, and even added nine-straight Pro Bowl appearances. Unfortunately, he fumbled the ball quite a bit. There were three seasons where he fumbled the ball more than 10 times, and finished his career with 90 fumbles. But he also had 91 touchdowns, so that evens things out a bit. Harris was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990. Harris, as it stands now, ranks 14th in career rushing yards and 12th in career rushing touchdowns.
10 TONY DORSETT, 12,739
If it weren’t for Emmitt Smith, Tony Dorsett would still be the best running backs to ever rush the ball for the Dallas Cowboys. Although he’s second best to one of the league’s greatest, he doesn’t get a spot near the top, as many rankings tend to place him. But he does close out the top 10 on this list. Dorsett had a great career. He was a very good all-around back and totaled more than 16,000 yards from scrimmage in his career. He was a Super Bowl champion, a four-time Pro Bowl selection and rushed for more than 1,000 yards in eight seasons.
No doubt, Dorsett, a guy who was elected to both the Pro Football and College Football Hall of Fame, deserves a spot in the top-10 running backs who have rushed for at least 10,000 yards.
9 JEROME BETTIS, 13,662
There may not ever be a better power rusher than Jerome Bettis. Bettis just beat the heck out of defensive lines on the way to his sixth spot on the all-time rushing leader list. Bettis also ranks 11th with 91 career rushing touchdowns. Bettis recorded a stunning eight seasons with more than 1,000 rushing yards. Although Bettis was never a running back who scared defenses with his receiving ability, his rushing skills crushed a lot of guys on this list.
Bettis, a Super Bowl champion, finished his career with six Pro Bowl appearances before retiring in 2006. Bettis was eventually inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015. Bettis was part of six playoff runs, and in 2005 he finally was part of a championship team. For his career in the postseason, Bettis rushed for 674 yards and nine touchdowns.
8 CURTIS MARTIN, 14,101
In just 11 seasons, it’s insane that Curtis Martin was able to rush for nearly 15,000 yards. The crazier part is that Martin’s most rush attempts in a season, 371, came in 2004 when he was 31 years old. Martin rushed for 1,697 that season. Martin ranks fourth for career rushing yards and 13th for career rushing touchdowns.
He’s without a doubt, one of the best running backs to play in the NFL. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards in all of his first 10 seasons and played in nearly every game through that stretch. It was only in his last season where he failed to meet that mark when he played in just 12 games. Martin even added more than 3,000 receiving yards throughout his career. He could have been higher on the list had a knee injury not ended his Hall of Fame career.
7 ERIC DICKERSON, 13,259
Back in the day, Eric Dickerson was unfairly criticized for attempting to avoid taking hits by running out of bounds. In reality, though, he should have been praised. In all, Dickerson played 12 seasons in the NFL, which included eight 1,000-yard seasons. And in 1984, he averaged 131.6 yards per game and rushed for 2,105 (a league record) yards that season. Overall, Dickerson averaged more than 100 yards a game in five different seasons. His career average was about 91 yards a game.
Dickerson led the league in rushing yards four times, has the most yards as a rookie and was the quickest person to rush for 10,000 yards. Dickerson, who ranks seventh in career rushing yards and 13th in career touchdowns was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999.
6 MARSHALL FAULK, 12,279
Marshall Faulk tops the list of the dual-threat running back who can run and receive. Not only did Faulk post 12,279 rushing yards, he also caught the ball for 6,875 receiving yards. His dual-threat action allowed him to be the fastest player to gain 16,000 yards from scrimmage (he did that in 129 games) as well as the fastest to reach 17,000 yards (142 games). He had four-straight seasons with 2,000 yards or more from scrimmage, and leads the way for a running back and receiving yards in a season with 1,048.
Faulk, a two-time MVP and eight-time Pro Bowl selection, was a crazy good rusher but also a crazy good receiver. That elevated him above a lot of the great backs that were listed previously. Faulk’s skillset is something that may not be matched for years.
5 LADAINIAN TOMLINSON, 13,684
LaDainian Tomlinson was without a doubt one of the most talented athletes to ever rush the ball in the NFL. By the end of his career, Tomlinson ranked fifth in career rushing yards (13,684) and second in career rushing touchdowns (145). Tomlinson even threw seven touchdowns during his 11-year career. The most impressive part is that Tomlison’s last season was mostly spent on the bench, so his totals mostly came from 10 seasons in the league.
L.T. was a five-time Pro Bowler, who led the league in rushing yards twice and rushing touchdowns three times. He holds the record for most rushing yards in a season (28), and is tied for the most consecutive games with a touchdown (18). Tomlinson is not yet in the Hall of Fame, but he no doubt will be soon.
4 JIM BROWN, 12,312
Jim Brown was the first player to rush for 12,000 yards. Brown is considered one of the best NFL players ever, and he played just nine seasons. Brown was widely known as a tough runner who could only be taken down at times by a host of defenders. And Brown was more durable than a running back should be. He never missed a game. He was an MVP four times and was selected to the Pro Bowl in every season he played. He even helped lead the Browns to an NFL championship (that was back before there was a Super Bowl).
Part of what makes Brown so great is the idea that he had much more left to give. He hung up his jersey during the prime of his career, leaving everyone memories of one of the greatest, but else wondering what else he could have done on the field.
3 BARRY SANDERS, 15,269
Barry Sanders is, in a lot of cases, considered the best and most elusive guy in NFL history. He nearly made defenders jump out of their shoes trying to keep up with him as he juked around the field. He’s the only guy to rush for more than 1,000 yards in every season he played, and rushed for 2,000 yards in 1997. It hurts to know that with how good Sanders was, he never managed to reach a Super Bowl. Sanders was really good. He averaged 1,500 rushing yards per season. He was selected to the Pro Bowl 10 times and was the Offensive Player of the Year twice and the MVP once. Sanders, who led the league in rushing touchdowns in 1991, was the rushing yards leader four times in his career.
More importantly, Sanders sits third on the list of most rushing yards after a 10-year career and his 99 touchdowns makes him the ninth best running back in that category.
2 WALTER PAYTON, 16,726
Walter Payton was very, very close to taking the top spot on this list. But his stats and accolades just don’t amount to being the NFL’s best-ever running back. Sure, he was very talented and was known as “Sweetness” because his moves were so good that defenders often times couldn’t handle him. Payton is probably among the league’s most prolific backs in the league. But as time goes on, the only thing that holds up are the facts. And the fact is, there was a guy who beat Payton in every statistical category. Payton was almost the best, but he currently sits as the second best. But Payton, who was a Super Bowl champ, two-time MVP and nine-time Pro Bowler, is a really good No. 2.
1 EMMITT SMITH, 18,355
A lot of people who rank top running backs fail to give Emmitt Smith the credit he deserves. They talk of how other guys would have done the same thing had they spent the time in the league that Smith had. Well, quite frankly, no one else came close to Smith’s career numbers. He has the most rushing touchdowns by 19 and about 1,500 more rushing yards than the next closest competitor. Even better, Smith was part of three Super Bowl wins.
It’s a shame that Emmitt Smith isn’t the outright best running back in history after the career he posted. He deserves more credit. Smith managed to play until he was 35 and rushed for nearly 1,000 yards in his final season with nine touchdowns. He wasn’t known for his receiving ability, but he posted 3,224 receiving yards over the course of his career. That makes for 21,579 career yards from scrimmage. Yet again, that’s another career-best for running backs.
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