Some of the most impressive seasons in the NFL’s history have been courtesy of running backs playing in their very first year in the league. Many of the NFL’s rushing records of today are still held by players who set them during their rookie season.
Sometimes, the performances have come from running backs selected all the way in the sixth round of the NFL Draft, while others have lived up to the hype they were given when they were chosen as a top ten draft pick.
Below is a list of the 15 best single-season performances by an NFL rookie running back. Some may come as a surprise, while others just fulfilled their draft expectations.
But for all of the running backs included on this list, each has played a part in writing the league’s record books.
15 Alfred Morris - Washington Redskins, 2012
After falling in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL Draft to the Redskins, expectations were not necessarily sky high for the young running back out of Florida Atlantic. Heading into that summer’s training camp, it was unclear of what exactly Morris’ role would even be for the upcoming season.
But Washington’s rookie running back had an impressive preseason and was eventually named as the starting running back for their opening game against the New Orleans Saints. 96 yards and two touchdowns later during a win over the Saints, the Redskins knew they had made the right decision in naming Morris their starter.
The young running back would go on to rush for a total of 1,613 yards and score 13 touchdowns during the 2012 season. His rushing yards for the year are currently the third most in a single-season by a rookie running back in NFL history.
14 Mike Anderson - Denver Broncos, 2000
In a rookie class that featured running backs Jamal Lewis, Ron Dayne, and Shaun Alexander, no one could have predicted that Anderson would eventually be the recipient of that year’s AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
Before the 2000 season, Anderson was not expected to be the Broncos starter. But injuries to fellow Denver running back Terrell Davis forced the team to look elsewhere for production in their offensive backfield.
Anderson ended up being the next man up and he did not disappoint. His 1,487 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns at the season’s end were both team records at the time.
He still holds the Broncos team record for most rushing yards during a single game with 251.
13 Curt Warner - Seattle Seahawks, 1983
Coming off three straight losing seasons, the Seahawks were looking for a spark in the 1983 NFL Draft. Well they certainly found one when they selected Warner with the third overall pick.
The former two-time All-American at Penn State joined a Seattle franchise that never had a running back run for 1,000 yards. Well Warner was about to make a few changes in the team’s record book.
The running back ended his rookie year with 1,774 yards from scrimmage, including 1,449 rushing yards. Both were easily Seahawks franchise records at the time. His 14 touchdowns in 1983 are still the most ever by a Seattle player during their rookie season.
Injuries cut Warner’s career much shorter than he probably would have hoped, but his achievements still led to the Seahawks inducting the running back into their Ring of Honor in 1994.
12 Barry Sanders - Detroit Lions, 1989
Arguably the greatest running back of all-time, it should come as no surprise to see Sanders name appear on this list.
His rookie season would become the first of many in which Sanders excelled while his team did not. Detroit lost eight of their first nine games in 1989 but eventually finished the year with a 7-9 record.
Despite his team’s struggles, Sanders managed to have a great rookie season. His 1,470 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns are still Lions rookie records for a single season.
Sanders ended his first year in the league by rushing for over 100 yards in five of his last six games.
His efforts that year would lead to the running back being voted to his first Pro Bowl, receiving the 1989 AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award, and being named to the All-Pro first team.
11 Marshall Faulk - Indianapolis Colts, 1994
After getting snubbed for the Heisman Trophy in each of his three years at San Diego State, Faulk was out to prove that he was the best NFL rookie running back in 1994. The Cincinnati Bengals opting not to select him with the first overall pick in the 1994 NFL Draft just added more to the fire that fueled Faulk’s motivation heading into the upcoming season.
In his first season has with the Colts, he finished the year with 1,804 total yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns. His total yards, his 1,282 rushing yards, and his 522 receiving yards were all single-season team records by a rookie running back at the time.
There was no argument in 1994 as to who should win the AP’s Offensive Rookie of the Year as Faulk was the obvious choice. He was also voted to his first career Pro Bowl that year and became the first rookie to ever win Pro Bowl’s Most Valuable Player award.
10 George Rogers - New Orleans Saints, 1981
Usually a team that finished 4-12 during a season does not have much to celebrate about. Despite the Saints abysmal record in 1981, the team still had high hopes for the future.
Much of those hopes had to do with the impressive year had by New Orleans’ rookie running back George Rogers.
Rogers finished his first season in the NFL with 1,674 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. Both of which are still Saints single-season records for a rookie running back.
At the time, his rushing yards and 378 carries in 1981 were the most ever in league history by a rookie running back. However, those totals were surpassed just two seasons later by some guy named Eric Dickerson.
Rogers easily won the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award in 1981 and was also voted to that year’s Pro Bowl. He spent a few more seasons in New Orleans before moving on to play for the Washington Redskins and eventually winning a Super Bowl with them in 1987.
9 Curtis Martin - New England Patriots, 1995
After being selected in the third round of the 1995 NFL Draft, Martin probably was not among the top choices for the upcoming season’s rookie of the year award. But once he ran for 102 yards in his very first game in the league, people began to notice just how good Martin was.
The Patriots’ rookie running back would end up running for at least 100 yards in nine of the team’s games in 1995, including seven of the last eight games of the season.
Martin finished his first year with 1,487 rushing yards and 15 total touchdowns. Both still remain at the top in New England record books for a rookie running back.
His rookie season was the first of 10 consecutive years with at least 1,000 rushing yards. In addition to winning the AP Rookie of the Year award in 1995, Martin was enshrined into a little place known as the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012.
8 Doug Martin - Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2012
Heading into the 2012 season, the Bucs decided to go with a rookie out of Boise State as their starting running back. Tampa Bay did not end up having a successful year, but Martin certainly did.
At the conclusion of the season, Martin had set Bucs rookie running back records for rushing yards, touchdowns, total yards from scrimmage, and carries. His 1,929 total yards in 2012 currently ranks as the third most all-time by an NFL rookie running back.
His best game of the season came against the Oakland Raiders in Week 9. In leading Tampa Bay to a 42-32 win, Martin finished the day with 272 total yards and four touchdowns.
His 251 rushing yards against the Raiders still ranks as the third most in a single game by a rookie running back in the league’s history.
Despite his efforts, Martin did not win the league’s award for rookie of the year (that went to Robert Griffin III). However, the Bucs running back did get to represent the team at the 2012 Pro Bowl.
7 Fred Taylor - Jacksonville Jaguars, 1998
Two games into his rookie season, Taylor had only touched the football seven times and accumulated just 46 rushing yards. Did the Jaguars make a mistake by selecting the former Florida Gator with the ninth pick in the 1998 NFL Draft?
Luckily for Jacksonville, Taylor proved his worth during his next three games when he scored a total of four touchdowns and ran for 333 yards.
Taylor would go on to score at least one touchdown in eight of his final 10 games that season. He ended the year with a total of 17 touchdowns, which is still tied for the second most ever in a single-season by an NFL rookie running back.
Taylor’s ability as a receiver out of the backfield is part of the reason he was able to be so productive during his rookie year. He finished the season with 44 catches for 421 yards and both remain as the second most all-time by a Jaguars rookie running back.
6 Billy Sims - Detroit Lions, 1980
Entering the 1980 NFL draft, the Lions were coming off a season in which they won just two games. They needed help in many areas but decided to select running back Billy Sims out of the University of Oklahoma with that year’s first overall pick.
Well, Detroit’s new running back made quite the NFL debut in the team’s opening game in 1980.
During a 41-20 win over the Los Angeles Rams, Sims finished with 217 total yards and scored three touchdowns. His total yards against the Rams are still the most ever in a Week 1 game by an NFL rookie running back.
Sims would amass at least 100 total yards in 10 of his 16 games in 1980. His 1,924 total yards from scrimmage that year still ranks as the fourth most all-time in league history by a rookie running back.
He would go on to win the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year for the 1980 season but unfortunately for Sims and the Lions, the running back’s career only last five years after he suffered a brutal, career-ending knee injury in 1984.
5 Maurice Jones-Drew - Jacksonville Jaguars, 2006
During the Jaguars short history as an NFL franchise, they had already seen a rookie running back come in and tear up the league when Fred Taylor played for them in 1998. Ironically enough, Jacksonville drafted a player in Maurice Jones-Drew in 2006 that would eventually take over as the franchise’s starting running back.
In 2006, Jones-Drew only started one game for the Jaguars and did not even rush for over 1,000 yards. So how could he have had one of the best seasons by a rookie running back in NFL history?
Well he not only spent time in Jacksonville’s backfield as a rookie, but he also caught passes and returned for the team.
By the time the year came to an end, Jones-Drew finished with 2,250 all-purpose yards and 16 total touchdowns.His total all-purpose yards in 2006 are still the most ever in a single-season by a rookie running back in NFL history.
Jones-Drew’s best game of the year came during a 44-17 Week 14 win over the Indianapolis Colts in which the rookie running back finished with 166 rushing yards and two touchdowns to go along with his 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
4 Adrian Peterson - Minnesota Vikings, 2007
After rushing for 224 yards in just his fifth career NFL game, the league knew that Peterson was on his way to having quite the successful career. But Peterson was not finished with his jaw-dropping performances in 2007.
During the Vikings’ Week 9 win over the San Diego Chargers, Minnesota’s rookie running back finished the game with three touchdowns and set the NFL record for rushing yards in a single game with 296.
Peterson ended his rookie season with 2,021 all-purpose yards, 1,341 of which were rushing yards. In addition to piling up tons of yards, the running back also scored 13 total touchdowns in 2007.
His accomplishments in his very first NFL season earned him the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award and a trip to the Pro Bowl.
3 Clinton Portis - Denver Broncos, 2002
Coming into Denver as a rookie, Portis had a lot to live up to. The Broncos had three different running backs rush for over 1,000 yards in three of the four years before Portis was drafted in 2002.
The former Miami Hurricane was far from intimidated by the accomplishments of the Broncos’ backfield before he became a member of the team.
Portis finished his first year in Denver by setting the team record for single-season rushing yards by a rookie running back with 1,508 and scoring 17 total touchdowns (also a Broncos rookie record). Not too bad for a guy that was not even taken in the first round of the 2002 NFL Draft.
The rookie running back provided Denver with a pretty decent performance in the team’s final game of the season with 228 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Others around the league definitely recognized Portis’ abilities as a running back and proved it when he was named the AP’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2002
2 Edgerrin James - Indianapolis Colts, 1999
With the fourth pick in the 1999 NFL Draft the Colts had the option of choosing James from the University of Miami or the reigning Heisman Trophy winner in Texas running back Ricky Williams. In the end, Indianapolis went with James and the rest is history.
The Colts rookie running back proved that the team made the right choice in selecting him as he went on to lead the league in rushing during his very first NFL season with 1,553 yards. Williams did not even rush for 900 yards in 1999.
In addition to leading the league in rushing yards during his rookie season, James also led the NFL in carries and he also found time in the year to catch 62 passes for 586 yards. Indianapolis thought they may never have a rookie running back perform like Marshall Faulk did in 1994, but James proved everyone wrong.
He still hold the Colts’ rookie records for total yards from scrimmage (2,139), touches (431), touchdowns (17), and receptions by a running back (62). James was named to the All-Pro First team, voted to the Pro Bowl, and was the obvious choice for the 1999 AP Offensive Rookie of the Year.
1 Eric Dickerson - Los Angeles Rams, 1983
When former SMU running back took the field in Week 1 of the 1983 NFL season as a member of the Los Angeles Rams, the league had no idea that Dickerson was about to set the bar for rookie running backs. When a first-year back has a big game today, Dickerson’s rookie year is almost always mentioned in the conversation.
In 1983, Dickerson set many rookie records that still have yet to be broken. Currently, he holds the NFL records for most rushing yards (1,808), carries (390), touchdowns (20), total yards from scrimmage (2,212), and touches (441) in a single-season by a rookie running back.
Not only was Dickerson named the AP’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1983, but he also won the AP’s award for NFL Offensive Player of the Year. A trip to the Pro Bowl that year was a given as was his selection to the league’s All-Pro first team.
Of all the talented young rookie running backs that the league has seen throughout its history, none have come close to breaking the marks set by Dickerson in 1983.
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