The Top Five Series: NFL running backs

After a brief hiatus brought on by the tire of a franchise in Washington, the Top Five Series returns with the five best running backs to ever throw on a set of pads. Click ahead before reading if you missed the wide receiver edition.

Let’s get to the list.

Honorable Mention: Marshall Faulk
Teams: Indianapolis Colts, St. Louis Rams
12,279 rush yards, 100 TDs; 2000 NFL MVP, three-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year, six-time All-Pro, seven Pro Bowls

The term is overused, but Marshall Faulk was truly the first of his kind. Elite dual-threat running backs didn’t really exist before Faulk came to Indianapolis in 1994.

Faulk reached the peak of his powers in 1998 and continued into the new millennium, winning three consecutive Offense Player of the Year awards from 1999–2001. In each of those four campaigns, Faulk rushed for more than 1,300 yards while also catching more than 100 passes.

Injuries began to plague Faulk almost immediately thereafter. The Rams never saw another 1,000-yard rushing season out of Faulk before his retirement in 2007.

5. Emmitt Smith
Teams: Dallas Cowboys, Arizona Cardinals
18,355 rush yards, 164 TDs; 1993 NFL MVP, six-time All-Pro, eight Pro Bowls

The NFL’s all-time leading rusher surely has a spot among the best to ever play the position. But no man on this list was surrounded by as much talent as Smith.

Dallas’ 1990s teams were flush with Hall of Famers and perennial All-Pros. Smith spent most of his career running behind one of the league’s best offensive lines. He regularly faced defenses who had to account for quarterback Troy Aikman and wide receiver Michael Irvin. Upon Aikman’s retirement following the 2000 season, Smith’s production dropped notably until Smith left for his ill-fated run in Arizona.

Credit Smith for doing the work. He never missed more than two games in a season while in Big D and, along with Jerry Rice, is one of two non-kickers to have scored more than 1,000 career points. But the other men on this list did as much as, or more than, Smith with less talent around them.

4. LaDainian Tomlinson
Teams: San Diego Chargers, New York Jets
13,684 rush yards, 145 TDs; 2006 NFL MVP, 2006 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, six-time All-Pro, six Pro Bowls

LaDainian Tomlinson was the natural successor to Marshall Faulk. Tomlinson, however, never had the supporting cast Faulk had in St. Louis and advanced past the divisional round just once in his Chargers career.

Tomlinson’s first eight years in the league were as good as anyone’s. LDT averaged 332 carries, 1,470 yards and 16 touchdowns without missing a game for San Diego, winning league MVP and Offensive Player of the Year in 2006 while leading the Bolts to a league-best 14–2 record.

On top of averaging more rushing yards per season than Emmitt Smith, Tomlinson contributed as a receiver. Over the course of his 11-year NFL career, Tomlinson chipped in 56 receptions for 434 yards per season, giving Chargers quarterbacks Drew Brees and Philip Rivers an invaluable safety outlet.

3. Walter Payton
Team: Chicago Bears
16,726 rush yards, 110 TDs; 1977 NFL MVP, 1977 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, eight-time All-Pro, nine Pro Bowls

Sweetness was the first post-merger superstar running back. He also may have been the best man to ever play the game.

Payton set the benchmark for career rushing yards when he broke Jim Brown’s NFL record in October 1984. Payton still holds the NFL records for consecutive starts for a running back, games with 100 or more yards from scrimmage and games with 150 or more yards from scrimmage, the latter record he shares with the next running back on this list.

The man was even more impressive than the player. Following his tragic death from a rare liver disease at age 45, the NFL changed the name of its Man of the Year Award to the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. Payton’s humanitarian track record was unparalleled and the name change was a fitting tribute to one of the true greats of the game.

2. Barry Sanders
Team: Detroit Lions
15,269 rush yards, 99 TDs; 1997 NFL MVP, two-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year, 10-time All-Pro; 10 Pro Bowls

Barry Sanders was the first player I ever watched who jumped off the TV screen. Sanders just looked different, like he was playing football on a level others couldn’t access.

That’s because he was. Sanders made everything he did look effortless, and so much of what Sanders did was extraordinary. The ankle-breaking cuts, reversals of field, the stops on a dime — they all looked so easy when Sanders did them, yet none of his peers could come close.

Sanders finished 31 yards shy of becoming the second-ever player to average 100 rushing yards per game throughout his career. He retired just 1,457 yards behind Walter Payton, who was the league’s all-time leading rusher at the time of Sanders’ retirement. Assuming he continued at his career average of 99.8 yards per game, Sanders would have broken Payton’s record on Christmas Day 1999, in front of more than 80,000 fans at the Pontiac Silverdome.

Instead, Sanders unexpectedly walked away from the Lions at age 30. In his autobiography, Sanders said his frustrations with team management and the direction of the franchise led to his retirement. Sanders’ career nearly continued outside the Motor City, as the Hall-of-Famer tried to earn his release or a trade out of Detroit. The efforts were fruitless, and Sanders hung up his cleats before his greatness had waned.

  1. Jim Brown
    Team: Cleveland Browns
    12,312 rush yards, 106 TDs; three-time NFL MVP, nine-time All-Pro, nine Pro Bowls

Unlike the five men who precede him on this list, Jim Brown never played 16 games in a season. For Brown, it was never an option — the league moved to a 16-game slate in 1978, 13 years after Brown retired. Had he played 16 games each season, Brown’s numbers would have been even more absurd than they are today. Brown would be third in NFL history in career rushing touchdowns and fifth in career rushing yards despite playing only nine seasons. He’d be the only player in NFL history with two 2,000-yard seasons and would hold the NFL’s single-season rushing yards record.

We can assume Brown would have played all 16 games in each of his nine NFL seasons because Brown never missed a game as a pro. The Browns were built around their fullback but it didn’t matter — nobody could stop Jim Brown.

Brown led the league in rushing an unfathomable eight times in his nine seasons. He retired as the only player in NFL history to average 100 rushing yards per game and remains the only player to achieve the feat. And he walked away from the game at 29 years of age, the greatest of all-time at that point and the greatest of all-time today.

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