NFL Analysis

6/5/24

10 min read

Ranking the Top 10 NFL Rookie RB Seasons of All Time

Nov 15, 1992; Pittsburgh,PA, USA; Barry Sanders of the Detroit Lions in action against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium. The game featured a snow storm. Mandatory Credit: Photo by USA TODAY Sports

The NFL is obsessed with quarterbacks now, but the league's history is filled with standout running backs.

Past eras brought monstrous performances from stars who carried their team on their back. Even if times have changed, we can't overlook the many playmakers who transcended their situation to put together a special rookie campaign.

We've assembled a list of the top 10 rookie running back seasons of all time. This was quite the challenge, given the deep cast of breakout campaigns since the NFL merged with the AFL in 1966. Who made the cut?

Top 10 Rookie RB Seasons Of All Time

We made some tough omissions on this list, starting with establishing the timeline to choose from.

For example, Jim Brown won't be on this list despite his incredible debut season in 1957. We put together this list by blending raw stats, efficiency, team success, and the weight each player carried in the context of their offense.

10. Billy Sims, Detroit Lions

The No. 1 overall pick of the 1980 class didn't have a long career, but he was a special talent for the Detroit Lions. The 1978 Heisman Trophy winner at Oklahoma quickly brought the electricity he produced in college to the woeful Lions. He was a big reason why they went from two wins in 1979 to nine in 1980.

Sims was a natural dual threat at the position, boasting a blend of speed, agility, contact balance, and body control that could've made him an all-time talent if he stayed healthy. He led the NFL with 13 rushing scores as a rookie and was fifth with 1,303 rushing yards. His whopping 621 receiving yards helped clinch his Offensive Rookie of the Year Award.

He was the team's second-leading receiver on an offense that ranked 11th in points scored and seventh in yards produced.

Sims never played another full season after 1980 but had an even more stellar sophomore season in 14 games. He retired at 29 after the 1984 season due to a major right knee injury. At the time, he stood atop the Lions' rushing leaderboard with 5,106 yards and a terrific 4.5 yards per carry average.


Denver Broncos running back Clinton Portis (26) in action against San Diego Chargers defenders Rodney Harrison (37) and Ben Leber (51) at Qualcomm Stadium. Peter Brouillet-USA TODAY NETWORK.

9. Clinton Portis, Denver Broncos

The litany of successful Mike Shanahan running backs across the NFL's history hurt the cases of Alfred Morris and Mike Anderson but not Clinton Portis'. Portis had incredible speed at 218 pounds, and his slashing style was perfect for Shanahan's zone tendencies. There couldn't have been a more natural fit in this era for both to succeed.

Portis delivered with a 1,508-yard, 15-touchdown season in 2002. He added another 364 receiving yards and two touchdowns en route to the OROY Award. Maybe most impressive was his whopping 5.5 yards per carry.

He continued to star with the Denver Broncos in 2003 but was traded to Washington for Champ Bailey to help Joe Gibbs' return to the sideline. He was great with Washington until injuries limited his explosiveness in his final two seasons.

Nevertheless, he remains an excellent example of why Mike and Kyle Shanahan benefit from elite talent in their already favorable scheme.


8. Ottis Anderson, St. Louis Cardinals

Only five rookies have outgained Ottis Anderson's 1979 mark of 1,605 yards, but only one posted a better yards-per-carry total than his 4.8 mark. The former Miami (FL) tailback immediately gave the Cardinals a bang for their first-round investment, making an All-Pro Team at 22. He finished the season with 372 touches, 1,913 yards from scrimmage, and 10 touchdowns.

Anderson enjoyed a 15-year career, but nothing matched his electric rookie season. With five of his first six seasons breaking 1,174 rushing yards or more, Anderson was a stalwart before injuries limited him to 25 games during the next three seasons. His personal peak came in 1990, though, when he earned Super Bowl XXV's MVP Award against the Buffalo Bills.

He never enjoyed that level of team success with the Cardinals, though. His rookie season ended in a 5-11 record, as the quarterback room completed just 50.4 percent for 12 touchdowns and 24 interceptions.

Anderson was one of very few reasons to watch the Cardinals in 1979.


New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley
New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley (26) scores a rushing touchdown during the first half against the Philadelphia Eagles at MetLife Stadium. Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports.

7. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

Was it wise for the New York Giants to invest the second overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft into Saquon Barkley when the league had shifted away from the position? Maybe not, especially with how Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson developed into potential Hall of Famers.

But Barkley's incredible athleticism immediately translated into huge numbers right away.

He averaged five yards per carry and totaled a league-high 2,028 yards from scrimmage and 15 touchdowns. The Giants saw their offense jump from 31st to 16th in points scored, and the unit rooted its identity in Barkley. He finished the year second in rushing yards (1,307) and 13th in receptions (91).

He blended explosiveness with reliability in an era where the position had been almost completely devalued. Unfortunately, he's matched that level of impact only once since, when he carried the Giants again in their breakout 2022 season.


6. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings

We can't let anyone forget that Adrian Peterson was the definition of a generational talent coming out of Oklahoma. He had everything in his repertoire, including 4.38 speed at 220 pounds. His resume is outstanding, earning four All-Pro nods, seven Pro Bowls, an MVP award, and Comeback Player of the Year.

The seventh overall pick in 2007 began his future Hall of Fame career by leading the league with 95.8 rushing yards per game, totaling 1,341 in 14 games. The highlight of the year was his 224-yard, three-touchdown game against Chicago. Oh, but we can't forget how he racked up 296 yards and another three scores against San Diego a month later.

Peterson was HIM, and no running back since has quite matched his blend of physicality and ability to carry an offense. He propelled a team with Tavaris Jackson to eight wins when the 24-year-old QB had only nine touchdowns to 12 picks and a 58.2 completion rate.

By the end of his career, Peterson had eight more seasons with at least 1,000 yards or 12 touchdowns.


Houston Oilers running back Earl Campbell (34) carries the ball against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Tampa Stadium. Manny Rubio-USA TODAY Sports.

5. Earl Campbell, Houston Oilers

A massive presence at 5-foot-11, 232 pounds, Earl Campbell immediately established himself as an all-time ball carrier. The No. 1 pick with a Heisman Trophy in his cabinet, Campbell led the league in rushing yards as a rookie despite missing one game. He finished 1978 with 1,450 yards, earning him an All-Pro nod and second place in the MVP race.

He was surprisingly efficient for a team that averaged 3.9 yards per carry the previous season. Campbell logged 302 attempts and finished with 4.8 yards per carry. It's not as if Campbell was a surprise for defenses, either. Houston QB Dan Pastorini completed only 54.1 percent of his throws for 16 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.

It was a foundation-setting season for his tenure in Houston. Campbell finished his seven-year stint with five seasons of more than 1,300 rushing yards and led the NFL three times in yards produced.


4. Edgerrin James, Indianapolis Colts

It might be easy to forget just how good Edgerrin James was because he played with Peyton Manning, and the league was stacked at the position throughout the 2000s. He only made an All-Pro team once but was the 1999 OROY and Hall of Famer for good reason. His terrific career started with a jaw-dropping campaign.

He led the NFL with 369 rushing attempts and 1,553 yards at 21. James added another 586 receiving yards and four touchdowns en route to finishing fourth in the MVP race. The Indianapolis Colts finished 13-3 as Manning, Marvin Harrison, and James headlined the NFL's third-best scoring unit.

Few rookie backs ended up in as good of a situation as James, but even fewer have maximized the opportunity more than the former Miami Hurricane. James' quickness and patient approach caught defenders off guard, and he was unnaturally comfortable in traffic.


3. Barry Sanders, Detroit Lions

Arguably the best tailback of all time, unsurprisingly, took the NFL by storm upon touching the field.

The Lions drafted Barry Sanders third overall in 1989 after he posted better numbers at Oklahoma State than what created players in College Football 25 could. It was kind of a risky move, considering they saw how Sims flamed out just a few years prior.

But Sanders' star burned brighter and longer than Sims'. He ran for 1,470 yards and 14 touchdowns in 15 games, averaging a whopping 5.3 yards per carry. Sanders notched his first of 10 Pro Bowls and six All-Pro nods. Only Christian Okoye had more yards that season.

The Lions became a must-watch team with Sanders in the backfield, jumping from 4-12 to 7-9. He did it throughout his career with poor quarterback play, and the 1989 combination of Rodney Pete and Bob Gagliano was terrible. They combined to throw only 11 touchdowns and 21 interceptions.


Ezekiel Elliott Cowboys vs. Colts
Indianapolis Colts middle linebacker Anthony Walker (50) closes in for the tackle on Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) in the first half of their game at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018.

2. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys' decision to draft Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall was controversial, but he was an incredible fit with the team's offensive line and scheme.

Though he was maligned for the early extension signed that proved more damaging than worthwhile, Elliott's first four years were remarkable. His rookie year was far and away better than any other back's initial season besides one.

The former Ohio State star played in 15 games and still led the NFL with 322 carries, 1,631 yards, and totaled 16 touchdowns. Elliott finished third in the MVP race and earned an All-Pro nomination. The Cowboys raced to a 13-3 season, as Dak Prescott won the OROY Award over Elliott.

Zeke's peaks never quite reached the same heights during the rest of his tenure, as his 5.1 yards per carry remains easily a career-best. He again led the league in touches and yards in 2018, and his 2019 season was outstanding.


1. Eric Dickerson, Los Angeles Rams

For as physically impressive as Campbell was, Eric Dickerson was like a genetically enhanced version of the giant ball carrier. At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, Dickerson had devastating power and speed. Defenders braced for contact as best they could, but Dickerson was a freight train in the open field.

The Hall of Famer had arguably the best stretch in league history, totaling at least 1,234 yards in each of his first seven seasons. That includes his rookie record of 1,808 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns in 1983. Dickerson led the NFL with an astounding 390 carries and added 51 receptions for 404 yards and two touchdowns.

No other rusher in 1983 averaged more than 98 yards per game, while Dickerson was at 113. John Riggins ran for 24 touchdowns, stealing the touchdown crown from the rookie, but it was otherwise an impeccable year.

Perhaps the best part was how he immediately turned the franchise around. Los Angeles won only two out of nine games in 1982, then jumped to nine wins in 16 outings in Dickerson's debut. QB Vince Ferragamo threw 23 interceptions, and no Rams receiver totaled more than 657 yards.


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