Running Back Rating (Career): The 10 Greatest Running Backs In NFL History

By AlNFL
Aug. 26, 2017

By the Running Back Rating's career system, Barry Sanders was a very good NFL running back (obviously).

Recently, I developed a RBR (Running Back Rating) metric for evaluating the performance of running backs. I adjusted this formula for careers, and found the NFL's ten greatest running backs in the history of the game. Logically, you'd think Emmitt Smith's 18,000 yards would put him at the top (or very close to it), but the career metric is based on a function of how well the player performed, and how efficiently they were able to accomplish their achievements. For example, Terrell Davis had a very, very good NFL career considering he only played for 8 years and still managed 9,000 yards total and 65 touchdowns. So, keeping that efficiency factor in mind, here are RBRC's best 10 NFL running backs - ever. To evaluate their overall statistics without production efficiency, look at the Wins Over Zero, which is the number of approximate wins they would have above replacement. One note: Emmitt Smith isn't on this list because of how long it took him to generate his numbers, but he leads all NFL RBs ever with 60.847 Wins Over Zero, about 4.06 per season. This is a list of retired running backs or those with 10+ years in the NFL if active.

First: There are two ways I can rank these. They are ranked by RBRC, though you may think that Wins Over Zero is better because it shows overall production. Each player's Wins Over Zero is given, and the top 10 will be at the bottom. You can pick which list you think is better.

10. Curtis Martin, New York Jets - 105.63 RBRC

Martin was a great running back with some of the best stuff the league has ever seen, which netted him 17,000 total yards.

Wins Over Zero: 50.20 (7th)

9. Corey Dillon, Cincinnati Bengals - 108.09 RBRC

Yup, Dillon. Corey Dillon was one of the NFL's most underrated running backs arguably ever, and he's got 13,000 yards. That's going to do you a lot in some debates.

Wins Over Zero: 42.80 (17th)

8. Terrell Davis, Denver Broncos - 110.07 RBRC

Davis accomplished so much in his short 8-year NFL career, and he's got a Gold Jacket to prove it (and a rate of over 1,000 yards per season).

Wins Over Zero: 34.88 (22nd)

7. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings - 111.16 RBRC

In his still-going NFL career, Peterson has 13,000 yards and over 100 touchdowns in 10 seasons, and he's not stopping.

Wins Over Zero: 44.03 (15th)

6. Walter Payton, Chicago Bears - 111.40 RBRC

Payton was arguably the greatest on-field running back ever, but not by my statistics. His 20,000 yards were an incredible achievement, but it took him 13 years to do it. Simply put, the top 5 guys would have reached 15,000 in 13 (or less) years.

Wins Over Zero: 57.36 (2nd)

5. Shaun Alexander, Seattle Seahawks - 113.61 RBRC

Another member of the "not-so-many-years, still-insane-production" club, Alexander had a similar stat line to Campbell, and an MVP award.

Wins Over Zero: 40.50 (19th)

4. Earl Campbell, Houston Oilers - 119.73 RBRC

Campbell is here because he hit 10,000 yards and 121 touchdowns in 8 seasons. Just 8! Campbell ran over defenders on the field, and, as a result, ran through history books.

Wins Over Zero: 37.94 (21st)

3. LaDainian Tomlinson, Los Angeles Chargers - 125.02 RBRC

He had 31 touchdowns in a single season, but that wasn't all the "other" L.T. did in his great NFL career. In addition to 162 touchdowns, Tomlinson hit 18,000 total yards in 11 NFL seasons. The only 2 guys ahead of him got tons of yards and scores in just 19 years combined.

Wins Over Zero: 54.47 (3rd)

2. Barry Sanders, Detroit Lions - 131.31 RBRC

It's not who you expected, is it? The numbers will prove Sanders had a Top-5 all-time career. Plus, at his Hall of Fame speech, he was introduced by his father as the "second greatest running back in the history of the NFL." Sanders managed 109 touchdowns and over 18,000 total yards in 10 years. That's 1,800 yards and 10 touchdowns every year for your entire career. That's amazing, and it proves why Sanders is the metric's second-best running back ever.

Wins Over Zero: 52.01 (5th)

1. Jim Brown, Cleveland Browns - 133.19 RBRC

Can you really be surprised? Brown compiled 126 touchdowns and almost 15,000 yards in just 9 NFL seasons. That's amazing production every year, and that's why Brown is RBRC's greatest running back ever.

Wins Over Zero: 47.48 (9th)

Top Ten By Wins Over Zero:

1. Emmitt Smith - 60.85

2. Walter Payton - 57.36

3. LaDainian Tominson - 54.47

4. Marshall Faulk - 52.85

5. Barry Sanders - 52.01

6. Marcus Allen - 51.91

7. Curtis Martin - 50.20

8. Tony Dorsett - 47.67

9. Jim Brown - 47.48

10. Frank Gore - 47.42

Honorable Mention: Thurman Thomas - 47.25

*For Reference: The NFL's Top Wins Over Zero of all time is WR Jerry Rice, with 78.373.