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Ranking The Top 10 Running Backs In NFL History

Nov 15, 2009; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers runningback LaDainian Tomlinson (21) runs for a short gain during the fourth quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles at Qualcomm Stadium. The Chargers won 31-23. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

While running backs and the run game don't necessarily carry the same weight in the modern game, those players and the ground game were the league's focus for a long time.

When focusing on the top running backs of all time, it's not a surprise most come from earlier eras of the NFL. With that, here are the top 10 running backs in NFL history.

>> READ: Top QBs | WRs of All Time

Ranking The Top 10 RBs In NFL History

10. Marcus Allen

As a rookie in 1982, Marcus Allen led the league in yards from scrimmage with 1,098 as one of three players to top 1,000 yards in the strike-shortened nine-game season.

Three years later, Allen led the league in yards from scrimmage with 2,314 yards, recording 447 touches and winning league MVP. Allen did not have a 1,000-yard rushing season after leading the league with 1,759 yards in that 1985 season — partly because he shared a backfield with Bo Jackson — but remained one of the most dangerous players with the ball in his hands through his age-37 season. 

9. Emmitt Smith

Emmitt Smith has the peak and longevity to be considered one of the best at his position. Smith had the benefit of playing with incredible players across the offense but was often the focal point of the game plan for the offense and the opposing defense.

Smith led the league in rushing in four of five years from 1991 to 1995, and the year he didn’t, he led the league in rushing touchdowns with 21. 

Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson (28) poses for a photo against the Green Bay Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings defeated the Packers 17-14. Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports.

8. Adrian Peterson

Adrian Peterson led the league in rushing three times, and his 2,097-yard season, half a year removed from a torn ACL, is one of the more impressive running back seasons in recent history.

It could likely be the last MVP season from a running back for some time. His combination of power and speed was a perfect fit in the Minnesota offense, which gave him a high workload and often relied on him to create explosive plays.

7. Earl Campbell

Earl Campbell had 137 yards and a touchdown in his NFL debut, and he didn’t slow down after that. His career started with three straight seasons of leading the league in rushing.

He won the league MVP in his second season when he ran for 1,697 yards and 19 touchdowns. He followed that up with 1,934 rushing yards in 1980. Campbell ran fast and hard, routinely running through defenders, whether they be linemen, linebackers, or poor defensive backs. 

6. Eric Dickerson

Eric Dickerson is the type of back who could still work in today’s game. His speed made him a nightmare for defenders and nearly impossible to catch from behind. His 2,105 rushing yards in his second season remain an NFL record, and he’s the only back with three seasons of at least 1,800 rushing yards.

Barry Sanders and O.J. Simpson are the only other players with two. Dickerson is also one of three backs with four seasons of at least 2,000 yards from scrimmage. 

5. Marshall Faulk

Marshall Faulk is one of the three backs with three seasons of at least 2,000 yards from scrimmage. And while he never led the league in rushing like most of the backs on this list, he was such a threat as a receiver that it changed the dynamic of any offense he was on.

He is one of four backs with a 1,000-yard receiving season, and only three of them had 1,000 rushing yards in the same year. He’s also the only back with three seasons of at least 800 receiving yards. Faulk helped the Great Show On Turf Rams go, leading to three straight Offensive Player of the Year awards from 1999-2001 and a 2000 MVP. 

4. Barry Sanders

If the NFL logo were the silhouette of a player like the NBA’s is of Jerry West, it would be hard to argue against Barry Sanders making a defender miss in the open field. That was Sanders’s game, and he was the best at it.

His elusiveness created some of the best highlights for a running back we’ve ever seen. Sanders led the league in rushing four times and was never worse than second-team All-Pro during his 10-year career. Really, the only knock on Sanders is that it was just a 10-year career, and he retired after his age-30 season.

3. LaDainian Tomlinson

Some backs can be great in the open field. Others excel in tight spaces. Some are better as receivers. LaDainian Tomlinson had all of that. He might be the best all-around back, given those traits.

He had three seasons of at least 2,000 yards from scrimmage and led the league in rushing twice. His 2006 MVP season featured 31 total touchdowns, which is still a record. Tomlinson also served as one of the league’s best goal line backs, with the power to run through the line and the athleticism to leap over it.

2. Walter Payton

When Walter Payton played, everyone knew he was getting the ball. That did not stop him from producing. From 1976 to 1979, Payton led the league in rushing attempts each season. While he did that, he won MVP in 1977 with 1,856 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground while rushing for 5.5 yards per attempt.

Payton was an incredible person off the field, as noted by the Walter Payton Man of the Year award given out annually by the NFL, but he was as tough as they come on it. He started 170 straight games, still a record for running backs. He also set the then-record 275 rushing yards in a single game in 1977 while battling through a 101-degree fever and the flu. 

1. Jim Brown

It’s impossible to match Jim Brown's dominance across his career. While he only played nine seasons, he led the league in rushing for eight of them.

He was the league MVP as a rookie and followed it up with another MVP in his second season. Brown then finished his career as the MVP in his final season. He averaged more than 100 yards per game, and only Brown and Barry Sanders have 2,000 career carries with at least 5.0 yards per carry.