Top 10 Running Backs in NFL History: Why Walter Payton is No. 1

The history of the NFL can’t be written without the accomplishments of the league’s greatest running backs. Of course, everyone has their own opinion on how to rank the best of the best, and I’m breaking down my personal list of the top 10 best running back in league history.

Top 10 RBs in NFL History

10. O.J. Simpson

Simpson lit the league on fire in 1973. In his second season in the league, he ran for 2,003 yards and for 143 yards per game. Remember, they only played 14-game seasons back then. Simpson amassed an incredible career in 135 games and 11 seasons, running for more than 11,000 yards and 61 touchdowns and adding 203 receptions while catching 14 touchdowns.

9. Marcus Allen

During his 16-year career, Allen played in 222 total games and ran for more than 12,000 yards. He was such an explosive player but also a smooth acceleration guy. I just loved watching him growing up. He ran for 123 total rushing touchdowns, but he also had 587 receptions in his career, along with 21 touchdowns receiving.

8. Eric Dickerson

Man, I loved watching this guy run when I was a kid — Eric Dickerson. Do you want to talk about smooth acceleration? Nobody did it like Eric Dickerson, who had 13,000 yards during his 12 seasons. He only played 146 games, but he had 90 rushing touchdowns, and he’s another one of those guys with 281 receptions and six touchdowns total receiving.

7. Adrian Peterson

I had the pleasure of working at ESPN starting in 2005. Peterson was someone I just loved to watch more than any other player. I just thought, “Man, when you watch the film, this guy is running like he’s just mad about something.” Of course, he cracked that 2,000-yard barrier as well. He had more than 14,000 yards for his career with 120 rushing touchdowns. He also added 305 receptions.

6. LaDainian Tomlinson

I think Tomlinson gets overlooked by a lot of people. But he had a great career — 13,000 total yards during his 11-year career. He played in 170 games, had 624 receptions and added 17 receiving touchdowns as well. Of course, back in 2006, he had a 28-touchdown rushing season. It was just an incredible Hall of Fame career that he put together.

5. Marshall Faulk

Faulk and I were in college at the same time, and I remember seeing all the great highlights. But what a career he put together in his 12 seasons; he played 176 games and had 100 rushing touchdowns. But how about 767 receptions being top five even among wide receivers? And with 36 receiving touchdowns, Faulk was clearly one of the most versatile players ever to play the position. He certainly deserves to be in the top five.

4. Emmitt Smith

I’m going to go with the all-time leading rusher, Emmett Smith, who had 18,000 yards in his 15-year career and 164 rushing touchdowns. What an incredible career he had, winning the Super Bowls, winning MVP and just the longevity alone. I know all too well how injuries can come. He was an exception to the rule by just missing so few games during his career, but he also had more than 500 receptions and 11 touchdowns receiving. 

Oct 2, 1994; Tampa, FL, USA; FILE PHOTO; Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders (20) in action against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Tampa Stadium. Mandatory Credit: USA TODAY Sports

3. Barry Sanders

There is no better runner, in my opinion. Barry Sanders and I had a chance to play against one another. I would say it was a pleasure, but I was just always anxious. You just were anxious when you were playing against Sanders. Fortunately, I didn’t have to actually be on the field, but we’d have a lead, score some touchdowns, put together a good game and be on the sideline just like, “Please stop this guy … Please.” You could not imagine the horror stories you would hear in the locker room from guys trying to tackle Sanders.

Anybody that hasn’t had a chance to see Sanders run, to stop and start — it’s just amazing.  He could stop on a dime and get back up to full speed in an instant. It made him almost impossible to tackle in the open field.

2. Jim Brown

This is going to make some people mad, but I’m going to go with the great Jim Brown. In nine seasons with the Browns, he ran for more than 12,000 yards, and he’s the only guy on the list to average more than 100 yards rushing per game for his entire career. We know he retired early, but he was among the most dominant players the NFL has ever seen.

In evaluating these top two, I was trying to think, “OK, well, what is it that Jim Brown had that made him special?” Obviously, he was tough as nails; he had all the speed. But the size for him is the main reason I have him at number two. Because when we talk about GOATs in basketball, for example, some people say Lebron James or Michael Jordan, but you don’t hear a lot of the Wilt Chamberlain talk.

Brown had the advantage of size. He was bigger than most of the guys trying to tackle him. I didn’t truck many guys in my day, but I could truck a few DBs. When I was playing against the smaller guys, I could do that too.

1. Walter Payton

Not to take anything away from Brown, we all know what an incredible career he had, but at No. 1, there’s one word that you haven’t heard: Sweetness.

Walter Payton, in his 13-year career, ran for more than 16,000 yards, and if you haven’t had a chance to see him play, just pull up the film. Back in the 1980s, I remember watching him run, and it was just like, “Wow, this guy is incredible.” The way he ran over tacklers, ran through tacklers, ran around tacklers, the stiff arm, whatever he needed to do, there was just a level of effort you saw from him that was absolutely incredible.

He also had 492 receptions in his career. Plus, this is a guy that was a backup quarterback, basically, for the team. He could throw touchdowns. He was such a versatile back, and I think, when you talk about the size advantage this guy didn’t have and the fact that defenses were meant to stop him— in his 12th season, he still ran for more than 1300 yards.

So Payton is my No. 1. The only guy on the list that didn’t play for a major university. He played for a historically black university — Jackson State.

Robert Smith is a former NFL running back for the Minnesota Vikings and a two-time Pro Bowler. His career with the Vikings earned him a spot on the 50 Greatest Vikings list. Follow him on Twitter at @Robert26Smith.

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