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The 5 Best Running Backs in NFL History

In an era of backfield committees, every-down workhorse backs seem to be a relic of the past. Here are the best running backs of all time.

Barry Sanders, Adrian Peterson, and the best running backs in NFL history
Credit-NFL/AP/Joker Mag

Over the last few years, running backs have been devalued across the board by NFL teams and analysts alike. In an era of backfield committees, every-down workhorse backs seem to be a relic of the past.

When predicting who will win a matchup, it’s often a team’s quarterback who influences our bets most. Fanduel’s Super Bowl predictions will get us so far with ideas on how this year may play out, however, there are many other factors too.

After all, a quarterback is only as good as the players surrounding him. So, let’s look back at the powerful runners capable of carrying an entire team on their back.

Here is our list of the five best NFL running backs of all time.

Table of Contents

#1: Barry Sanders

Barry Sanders is the greatest running back of all time. There is zero doubt that every other running back lives in his shadow.

Sanders’ juke movies were second-to-none – the 5’8″ running back slipped out of reach of countless would-be tacklers.

He made the Pro Bowl in every season he played, leading the league in rushing yards four times on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

#2: Walter Payton

"Never die easy. Why run out of bounds and die easy? Make that linebacker pay. It carries into all facets of your life." – Walter Payton

Number two on our list is Walter Payton. Throughout the 70s and 80s, he made a fool of any tackler hopeful to break past him with high steps and stiff arms. If he had the ball, there was no taking it from him.

He was highlighted by an astounding MVP-winning ‘77 season, rushing for an incredible 1,852 yards and 14 touchdowns. As far as his impressive achievements, he managed to surpass the 1,200 rushing yard mark on ten occasions.

Walter Payton’s record upon his retirement stood at an unbelievable 16,726 rushing yards! Quite the feat. 

He also still ranks at the third all-time in terms of yards from scrimmage, and he landed 9 Pro-Bowls and 5 first-team All-Pros.

There is no other player more deserving of being on this list.

#3: Emmitt Smith

Then we have Emmitt Smith, who simply decimated the NFL’s extensive record books.

Smith was in the league for 15 years, and he held plenty of records over this time. He stood as the king of single-season touchdowns with a brilliant 25, a career rushing yards record of 18,355, as well as career rushing touchdowns at 164.

Even to this day, no one has even breathed close to his records in rushing touchdowns and rushing yards. 

One day, Smith believes his records will be broken. However, until then the incredible 1993 MVP and three-time Super Bowl legend remains top dog.

#4: Jim Brown

If we are only considering talent then Jim Brown 100% needs to be on this list. Despite a short 9-year career, Brown is a football legend. In his time, he cut through defenses like Swiss cheese and held epic records.

Gashing defenses for 12,312 yards over his career, he led the NFL in rushing yards on 8 separate occasions, making him a perennial first-team All-Pro choice.

He entered the Hall of Fame in the early 70s and although he left the stage early, he made a lasting mark on the game that will live on forever.

#5: Adrian Peterson

Adrian Peterson is the only active running back on this list, but boy is he a good one. Peterson entered the league as a very promising player and has lived up to every expectation.

He was most successful in his 10 years in Minnesota, where he made a comeback for the ages. After tearing his ACL and MCL at the end of the 2011 season, Peterson ran for an astounding 2,097 yards in 2012, earning him NFL MVP honors.

However, he has since jumped around a lot and last played for the Seattle Seahawks, where he tied Jim Brown’s touchdown record.

Who is the best running back in NFL history? Tell us your top-5 on Twitter!

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