Running back is a unique position. It’s constantly devalued in today’s NFL as the modern game is centered primarily on pass-happy offenses and high-volume numbers. But when you have a special player like Adrian Peterson – a ball-carrier who can run with the football, catch passes, and block – he’s a franchise player worth keeping around. The greatest of all-time were those who could do everything a running back needed to do, and most importantly, they stayed on the field for many seasons.
What I Looked At to Compile My Rankings:
Running backs on here are judged by their raw skills – power, speed, ability to block, and catch the football. Longevity helps, but a player’s peak is valued more for this position than any others, considering the lifespan of a great running back can be just a few seasons. Postseason accolades didn’t make or break a running back, but they certainly helped.
I ranked 100 running backs on this list, so I broke the article into three parts for easier reading. This part will focus on the running backs ranked 100 through 51; Part II will include running backs 50 through 21; and Part III will be for the game’s 20 greatest running backs of all-time.
|100. Alan Ameche (1955-1960)|
|99. Greg Bell (1984-1990)|
|98. Chris Warren (1990-2000)|
|97. Freeman McNeill (1981-1992)|
|96. Mark Van Eeghen (1974-1983)|
|95. Lawrence McCutcheon (1972-1981)|
|94. Otis Armstrong (1973-1980)|
|93. Paul Hornung (1957-1966)|
|92. George McAfee (1940-1950)|
|91. Wendell Tyler (1977-1986)|
|90. Mike Pruitt (1976-1986)|
Alan Ameche (#100) teamed with Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry, and Johnny Unitas to give the Baltimore Colts one of the more prolific offenses in the 1950s. Ameche is famous for scoring the game-winning touchdown in the 1958 NFL championship (The Greatest Game Ever Played), but he also made a name for himself by earning four Pro Bowl selections… Greg Bell (#99) was a first-round pick (and rookie Pro Bowler) for the Buffalo Bills in 1984, but did his best work in a two-year stint with the Los Angeles Rams, leading the NFL in rushing touchdowns in consecutive years… Chris Warren (#98) was a load to bring down at 6’2”, 228 pounds, and he parlayed that size into four 1,000-yard rushing campaigns and three Pro Bowl selections with the Seattle Seahawks in the mid-‘90s… Freeman McNeil (#97) averaged at least 4.0 yards per carry in all 12 seasons of his NFL career, and he retired at age 33 as the New York Jets’ all-time leading rusher… Mark Van Eeghen (#96) is the only running back on this list to play after the 1970 NFL-AFL merger and not make a Pro Bowl. Van Eeghen was a key player for the Oakland Raiders that won two Super Bowls and six playoff games in a five-year span.
Lawrence McCutcheon (#95) made five Pro Bowls in his first six NFL seasons, which is a pretty impressive feat for a third-round pick who barely touched the ball as a rookie… Otis Armstrong (#94) had the difficult task of replacing a star talent like Floyd Little, but he did okay for himself, leading the NFL in rushing yards (1,407) and earning a First-Team All-Pro selection in just his second year on the job… Paul Hornung (#93) inexplicably made the Hall of Fame, despite being just the second-best running back on his own team during his career. Hornung was a superstar collegiate player who went first overall in the 1957 NFL draft, then never rushed for even 700 yards in his 10 seasons. Hornung was also suspended for an entire year due to a gambling incident. He did win an MVP award (although there were a handful of players much better), and helping Green Bay win four championships helped put him in Canton, Ohio… George McAfee (#92) was nicknamed one-play McAfee, likely for his blazing speed (9.7 100-yard dash). McAfee didn’t post gaudy statistics, but he helped the Chicago Bears win three NFL championships and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1966… Wendell Tyler (#91) rushed for 1,000 yards three times in a six-year span and twice led teams in rushing yards in the Super Bowl (for the 1979 Los Angeles Rams and 1984 San Francisco 49ers)… Mike Pruitt (#90) began his career as a backup to Greg Pruitt (no relation). He was a fullback, but carried the ball enough to register four 1,000-yard seasons and make two Pro Bowls.
|89. George Rogers (1981-1987)|
|88. Michael Turner (2004-2012)|
|87. Charley Trippi (1947-1955)|
|86. Garrison Hearst (1993-2004)|
|85. Stephen Davis (1996-2006)|
|84. James Wilder (1981-1990)|
|83. Jamal Anderson (1994-2001)|
|82. Clem Daniels (1960-1969)|
|81. Greg Pruitt (1973-1984)|
|80. Terry Allen (1991-2001)|
George Rogers (#89) entered the NFL with a bang. Fresh off a Heisman Trophy award, he went first overall to the New Orleans Saints and then led the league in rushing yards (1,674), actually setting a rookie record, and earned a First-Team All-Pro selection. Rogers never replicate that season, and while he did put up three more 1,000-yard seasons and 18 rushing touchdowns with the 1986 Washington Redskins, he fell a little short for a #1 overall draft pick… Michael Turner (#88) averaged 5.5 yards per carry in four seasons as LaDainian Tomlinson’s backup in San Diego, then exploded as a full-time player in Atlanta. He scored double-digit touchdowns all five seasons with the Falcons, averaging 1,216 rushing yards per campaign. Turner retired after a 2012 campaign in which his yards-per-carry dropped to 3.6 (although he still scored 11 total touchdowns)… Charley Trippi (#87) is one of five running backs drafted first overall to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Trippi pretty much did everything on the football field. He played halfback, quarterback, defensive back, and punter. He even played minor league baseball for a year… Garrison Hearst (#86) pulled off one of the more remarkable achievements in sports history, returning from a knee injury that caused him to miss two full seasons to rush for 1,206 yards. Hearst finished his NFL career with over 10,000 yards from scrimmage and two Pro Bowl selections. Interestingly enough, there are 51 running backs in history with at least 10,000 scrimmage yards; Hearst’s 39 touchdowns make him the only one with under 50 scores… Stephen Davis (#85) had an underrated peak. He averaged close to 1,300 rushing yards over a five-year period, making three Pro Bowls and helping the 2003 Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl.
James Wilder (#84) was an unbelievable workhorse. He holds the NFL single-season record with 492 regular-season touches; the next-best total is 457. Eleven times in that 1984 season, Wilder touched the ball at least 30 times in a game and he topped out at 47. For his career, Wilder broke down shortly after his ’84-’85 campaigns; his 3.79 yards-per-carry average is the second-lowest of any running back to make my top 100… I didn’t intentionally rank Wilder and Jamal Anderson (#83) back-to-back, but Wilder held the record with 407 carries in a season until Anderson broke it with 410. Including the postseason, Anderson handled 480 rushing attempts and 519 touches in 1998, and then he touched the ball just 403 times for the rest of his career… Clem Daniels (#82) was an AFL star, making four straight Pro Bowls while topping 1,400 yards from scrimmage every year… Greg Pruitt (#81) used to intentionally wear jerseys that would tear away; in fact, the NFL later banned players from wearing them. Pruitt made five Pro Bowls, four as a runner and one as a returner. He also threw six touchdown passes… Terry Allen (#80) once rushed for 21 touchdowns in a season; that’s still the sixth-best single-season mark in league history, and a higher mark than Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, or Earl Campbell ever reached.
|79. Earnest Byner (1984-1997)|
|78. Calvin Hill (1969-1981)|
|77. Keith Lincoln (1961-1968)|
|76. Doak Walker (1950-1955)|
|75. Larry Brown (1969-1976)|
|74. Wilbert Montgomery (1977-1985)|
|73. Ottis Anderson (1979-1992)|
|72. Chuck Muncie (1976-1984)|
|71. Cliff Battles (1932-1937)|
Earnest Byner (#79) seemingly played forever, lasting 14 years in the NFL and playing every game in each of his final 10 seasons. He and Brian Mitchell are the only skill position players in league history to do that. Byner was an underrated talent, amassing over 8,000 rushing yards and 4,500 receiving yards in his career. He’s unfortunately best known for his lost fumble in the 1987 AFC Championship Game against Denver, but few remember how dominant he was that game – 187 total yards and two touchdowns… Calvin Hill (#78) spent his rookie training camp working at linebacker and tight end, then settled in at halfback and made four Pro Bowls over a 13-year career in which he helped Dallas win a Super Bowl… Keith Lincoln (#77) pretty much did everything for the 1960s San Diego Chargers, rushing for 3,383 yards, adding another 2,250 as a receiver, returning kicks and punts, throwing five touchdowns, and even contributing as a kicker one year… Doak Walker (#76) had a short NFL stay, but he packed five Pro Bowls and four First-Team All-Pro selections into what would later be a Hall of Fame career. Walker is still considered one of the greatest players in NCAA football history, and the annual Doak Walker award in college football is given to the nation’s best running back… Larry Brown (#75) made the Pro Bowl in each of his first four NFL seasons, despite being an eighth-round pick when he entered the league. Brown led the league in rushing yards (1,125) in 1970, then won the MVP award in ’72 when he compiled 1,689 yards from scrimmage and 12 total touchdowns.
Wilbert Montgomery (#74) is revered by Philadelphia Eagles fans for his touchdown in the 1980 NFC Championship Game that got the Eagles to the Super Bowl. Montgomery averaged over 1,600 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns during the span from 1978 to 1981… Ottis Anderson (#73) is the lowest-ranked running back on this list to have topped the 10,000-yard plateau. He started his career with five 1,100-yard seasons in his first six years (only missing in the strike-shortened ’82 campaign). He hung around forever though, and averaged just a paltry 3.2 yards per carry over his final seven NFL seasons. Anderson had a prominent role on two Super Bowl champion New York Giants teams, winning the Super Bowl MVP award at age 33… Chuck Muncie (#72) was an interesting person. He was in a severe accident as a child, rebounded to finish runner-up in the Heisman Trophy and go third overall in the 1976 NFL draft. Muncie rushed for 6,702 yards and 71 touchdowns, making three Pro Bowls, before drug issues derailed his career… Cliff Battles (#71) was one of the great running backs of the early days, earning three First-Team All-Pro selections and making the Hall of Fame in 1968. Curiously enough, Battles was allowed to throw the ball fairly regularly, despite being quite possibly the worst passer of all-time: 28.0 completion percentage on 157 attempts, one touchdown pass to 15 interceptions, and a laughable 9.8 passer rating.
|70. Bo Jackson|
Bo Jackson (#70) is a once-in-a-lifetime professional athlete, and a remarkable enough physical freak that he gets his own section here. I’ve seen rankings listing Jackson in the top 10 ever; in fact, when the website Football Perspective did a ranking of the top 20 running backs ever last year, Jackson – who finished 19th – actually got votes as the second-best running back in history.
In terms of measurables, there’s no denying the greatness. Jackson was 6’1”, 227 pounds, and legitimately ran a 4.12 40-yard dash. There has never been a running back even close to that size-power-speed combination, and there probably never will be again. Jackson’s story is well-known – he went first overall to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but opted not to sign and then had a four-year career with the Los Angeles Raiders before a career-ending hip injury. Remarkably, Jackson’s four years in LA were more productive than the Hall of Fame runner the Raiders also had (Marcus Allen).
Jackson’s career 5.4 yards-per-carry average is better than Jim Brown or Barry Sanders or Adrian Peterson; while Jackson doesn’t meet the NFL’s minimum threshold for carries, there’s no retired running back who played in the National Football League who can top Jackson’s 5.4 mark. Jackson had his share of legendary moments in pro football, such as running over Brian Bosworth or the 91-yard Monday Night Football run into the tunnel. He also struggled to stay healthy like few athletes before or since – he never played more than 11 games in a season and retired after just four years in the league.
I can’t rank Jackson higher than #70 when he simply couldn’t stay healthy. He didn’t catch passes and never had more than 173 carries in a season. His career total of 515 rushing attempts is just a 25-game span for some of the game’s modern workhorses. That’s not to take away what Jackson did on the field. For one game in his prime, he’s a top-10 running back ever. But on an all-time list, #70 seems fair.
|69. Charlie Garner (1994-2004)|
|68. Floyd Little (1967-1975)|
|67. William Andrews (1979-1986)|
|66. Ray Rice (2008-2013)|
|65. Chuck Foreman (1973-1980)|
|64. Matt Forte (2008-Active)|
|63. Thomas Jones (2000-2011)|
|62. Brian Westbrook (2002-2010)|
|61. Maurice Jones-Drew (2006-2014)|
|60. Gerald Riggs (1982-1991)|
Charlie Garner (#69) hit his stride in the second half of his career, which is unusual for a great running back. He caught a ton of passes, hauling in 91 for 941 yards for the 2002 AFC champion Oakland Raiders and over 400 for his career… Floyd Little (#68) is probably an underdeserving Hall of Famer, but he did make five Pro Bowls and twice lead the NFL in rushing yards per game for the Denver Broncos. He holds the distinction of having the most career rushing yards without ever playing in the postseason… William Andrews (#67) had five spectacular seasons before a knee injury effectively ended his career. During those five years though, he averaged 1,154 rushing yards and 522 receiving yards per year, and that includes the strike-shortened 1982 campaign… Before his playing career (likely) unceremoniously ended, Ray Rice (#66) was a rare pass-catching talent. From 2009 through 2012, he played all 64 games, averaging a 277/1,266/8 rushing line plus 70/610/2 as a receiver out of the backfield. While he was held to just 59 yards by a tough San Francisco front seven in the 2012 Super Bowl, he did touch the football 34 times in the Ravens’ win. That’s an impressive workhorse load for a 5’9” player… There have been seven halfbacks in history to make the Pro Bowl in each of their first five seasons. Chuck Foreman (#65) is one of them, although he and Ricky Watters are the only two not to make the Hall of Fame.
I didn’t intentionally pack this grouping full of modern players, but there are six running backs who did most of their work within the last decade, including five straight coming up. Matt Forte (#64) is one of the best pass-catching running backs of all-time, as well as being a five-time 1,000-yard rusher. There are just three backs in history to amass over 3,000 rushing yards and 220 receptions in their three best seasons: Marshall Faulk, Brian Westbrook, and Forte… After being picked eighth overall in the 2000 NFL draft, Thomas Jones’ (#63) numbers through four seasons were vastly disappointing: just 1,891 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on 3.8 yards per carry. He found new life with Chicago and then the New York Jets, rushing for 6,378 yards and 43 touchdowns over his next five seasons. He rushed for over 4,000 of his 10,591 career yards after the age of 30… Brian Westbrook (#62) was underutilized as a runner in Philadelphia, but he made a ton of plays as a receiver and punt returner as well. Injuries kept him from ranking higher (he never played all 16 games in a season), but he did average 1,621 scrimmage yards and 11 touchdowns during his five-year peak. He’s one of six running backs in the 30-30 club (30 rushing touchdowns and 30 receiving touchdowns)… Maurice Jones-Drew (#61) managed to carve out a nine-year career for himself, despite being just 5’6 ¾”. MJD averaged 1,554 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns per year from 2006 through 2011, making three Pro Bowls and leading the league in rushing yards once… Gerald Riggs (#60) was a bonafide workhorse in his prime, averaging 1,511 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns from 1984-’86. In his final NFL campaign (1991), Riggs played a prominent role on the Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins, scoring 11 touchdowns in the regular season and then a ridiculous six in the three postseason contests (on just 11 carries).
|59. Cookie Gilchrist (1962-1967)|
|58. John David Crow (1958-1968)|
|57. Larry Johnson (2003-2011)|
|56. John Henry Johnson (1954-1966)|
|55. Eddie George (1996-2004)|
|54. LeSean McCoy (2009-Active)|
|53. Robert Smith (1993-2000)|
|52. Ahman Green (1998-2009)|
|51. Billy Sims (1980-1984)|
Cookie Gilchrist (#59) was one of the great AFL running backs of all-time. He led the league in rushing touchdowns four consecutive seasons, earning a Pro Bowl selection every year and making three First-Team All-Pro selections. Gilchrist’s peak was short and he was out of football by his sixth season, but then again, it didn’t help that he started his career at age 27… John David Crow (#58) was the No. 2 overall pick in the 1958 NFL draft, and did a little bit of everything during his career. He rushed for almost 5,000 yards and 38 touchdowns, caught 258 passes for 3,699 yards and another 35 touchdowns, and holds the non-quarterback record with 33 completed passes… Larry Johnson (#57) had a short peak, but was incredibly effective when he played. Johnson rushed for 1,750 and 1,789 yards in consecutive seasons. The only other running backs to have done that for two straight years are Eric Dickerson (1983-’84) and Terrell Davis (1997-’98). Johnson was certainly helped by an all-world Kansas City offensive line, but results are results, and he was an MVP-caliber running back for those two years… John Henry Johnson (#56) took some time to get his career started, but ended up becoming the oldest running back ever (35) to make a Pro Bowl, doing so when he rushed for 1,048 yards in 1964. He had 68 percent of his career rushing production after the age of 30… Eddie George (#55) was a unique player. He was freakishly large for a running back (6’3”, 235 pounds) and amazingly durable – he played all 128 games his first eight seasons, a feat no running back has come close to matching. George had seven 1,000-yard seasons, finished his career with over 10,000 yards, and was able to withstand 300 carries on a repeated basis. What the workload did though was drastically affect his efficiency; George’s 3.64 career yards-per-carry average is by far the lowest of any top 100 running back on my list, and he once failed to rush for 1,000 yards despite receiving 315 carries.
LeSean McCoy (#54) is still just 27 years old and could make the Hall of Fame with a few more quality seasons. McCoy has elusivity straight out of the Barry Sanders handbook, and he’s an underrated pass-catcher who doesn’t fumble much either. His 4.6 yards-per-carry average is higher than six of the running backs I have ranked in my top 10 all-time… Until Tiki Barber, Robert Smith (#53) held the NFL record for most rushing yards by a player in his final season (1,521). Smith chose to walk away from the game at the age of 28, despite having averaged 1,247 yards the last four seasons. Interestingly enough, Smith averaged 27.2 yards per touchdown run, the highest ever for a running back… In 2000, Green Bay traded a fifth-round draft pick to acquire Ahman Green (#52); over the next seven seasons, he proceeded to average 1,166 rushing yards and eight scores per year, making four Pro Bowls. In ’03, Green rushed for 2,105 yards and 17 touchdowns, including the postseason… It was a different era when the Detroit Lions selected Billy Sims (#51) first overall in the 1980 NFL draft; Sims was nearly 25 years old as a rookie and lasted just five seasons before a devastating knee injury ended his career. Sims was a Hall of Fame talent when he played, averaging over 1,000 yards per year, despite a strike-shortened 1982 campaign and the injury that forced him to miss half of his final season. Sims’ career average of 119.63 yards from scrimmage per game is the second-highest rate in league history, behind just Jim Brown.
Stay tuned for Part II, which will count down the running backs ranked #50-21.
Follow Cody Swartz on Twitter (@cbswartz5).