Some of the records for running backs may prove difficult to beat based on our review of the NFL players with the most career rushing yards.
While passing and receiving yards records are tumbling almost on a weekly basis in the NFL, many of the leading statistics for rushing yards look like they could stand for some time.
As football increasingly trends towards a greater emphasis on the passing game, it is more difficult than ever for running backs to match some of the league’s greats from previous eras.
Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley and Derrick Henry are established stars in the league, while Bijan Robinson has become the first RB since Barkley in 2018 to be drafted inside the top 10 after being selected by the Atlanta Falcons.
But even these leading running backs have a huge task if they are to join the list of players with the most career rushing yards.
We have previously looked at the players with the most all-time passing yards and now we’re breaking down the top rushing performers in NFL history.
1. Emmitt Smith: 18,355 Yards
Smith owns a host of NFL records, including the most career rushing yards.
Since Smith hung up his cleats after the 2004 season, which was the second of two campaigns he spent with the Arizona Cardinals, no running back has come close to his final tally of 18,355 yards.
Smith did most of his damage as a member of the Dallas Cowboys in an illustrious career that saw him win three Super Bowl titles, the Super Bowl MVP award and be named the NFL MVP in 1993.
He led the NFL in rushing across four separate years, including his MVP season.
Smith registered a career-high 1,773 yards on the ground in the 1995 campaign and also rushed for 25 touchdowns on his way to winning a third Super Bowl with Dallas, which came in Super Bowl XXX against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He was a constant scoring threat, ending his career with a record 164 rushing TDs in the regular season.
Smith reached the end zone at least 11 times in eight of his first 10 years with Dallas and amazingly topped 1,000 rushing yards for 11 straight seasons for America’s Team between 1991-2001.
2. Walter Payton: 16,726 Yards
The Chicago Bears great sits second in the list of all-time rushing yards leaders after a career that saw him taste Super Bowl glory and, like Smith, secure an MVP crown.
He ended his career in 1987 with a 4.36 rushing average, which was higher than the mark Smith (4.16) would go on to achieve in the decades that followed.
It was 10 years earlier in 1977 when Payton was named MVP, running for 1,852 yards at 5.5 yards per carry for 14 rushing touchdowns – all of which were league-leading efforts.
Payton’s Super Bowl success came much later in his career as part of the 1985 Bears team which crushed the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX. While that team was famed for its defense, the running back was also a key contributor that year.
Despite it being his 11th NFL season, Payton produced 1,551 yards at a healthy 4.8 average for the second-best single-season mark of his career.
3. Frank Gore: 16,000 Yards
While he was a talented back, it is longevity that has helped Gore into such a prominent position in the all-time rushing rankings.
He played in 16 NFL seasons, which is the most of any player in the top 10 and appeared in 241 regular season games. Gore and Smith (226) were the only two who played more than 200 times.
Gore is best known for his time with the San Francisco 49ers, spending his first 10 seasons with the team that picked him in the third round of the NFL Draft.
He later played for the Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills and New York Jets.
Gore had nine 1,000-yard rushing seasons, with his best coming in only his second NFL season with the Niners in 2006. He racked up 1,695 yards at an average of 5.4, helping him to a second-team All-Pro selection that year.
4. Barry Sanders: 15,269 Yards
The Hall of Fame running back reached his stunning total despite playing in only 10 NFL seasons for the Detroit Lions.
The NFL MVP in 1997, Sanders’ career record includes some staggering statistics. He has the highest rushing average of any player in the top 10 at 4.99 and produced 99.8 yards per game across his magnificent career, which is also tops on this list.
Sanders was a four-time rushing champion, a two-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year and a 10-time All-Pro selection.
His MVP season was one for the ages, as he racked up 2,053 yards at 6.1 yards per carry and 128.3 YPG. His career was recently recognized with a new statue outside of Ford Field.
5. Adrian Peterson: 14,918 Yards
Peterson is the final member of the top five after falling just short of the 15,000 mark for career rushing yards.
Similarly to Gore, he is helped by playing across so many seasons – appearing in 15 overall – but many of his figures are still spectacular.
His career rushing average of 4.62 is second only to Sanders among the top 10 rushers in NFL history.
Peterson’s famous 2012 season saw him produce 2,097 yards on the ground, putting him only behind Eric Dickerson for the highest rushing yardage in a single season.
It was clear Peterson was going to be a force when he was named Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2007. That was one of his eight 1,000-yard seasons in the NFL.
After being drafted by the Minnesota Vikings, he recorded at least 970 yards in each of his first seven seasons in the league before later suiting up for the New Orleans Saints, Cardinals, Lions and Washington.
Peterson also briefly appeared for the Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks in the 2021 season.
Other Top Rushing Performances
Curtis Martin (14,101 rushing yards), LaDainian Tomlinson (13,684), Jerome Bettis (13,662), Eric Dickerson (13,259) and Tony Dorsett (12,739) round out the top 10.
With 145 rushing TDs, Tomlinson is second only to Smith in that category among the top 10.
Some other rushing greats like Jim Brown (12,312) and Marshall Faulk (12,279) narrowly miss out on the top 10, but even those yardage totals will be hard for modern backs to match given the more limited opportunities for carries now available.
Most Rushing Yards in the Playoffs
Smith (1,586 rushing yards in the playoffs) is the only member of the top 10 in the regular-season standings who was also able to top 1,000 postseason yards.
As well as the regular season record, he also has the highest rushing yardage in postseason play, narrowly sitting ahead of some other rivals.
There are only five other NFL players who have reached four figures on the ground in the NFL playoffs: Franco Harris (1,556), Thurman Thomas (1,442), Tony Dorsett (1,383), Marcus Allen (1,347) and Terrell Davis (1,140).
John Riggins (996) and Marshawn Lynch (970) narrowly fell short.
In terms of active players, Derrick Henry may be a threat to the leading group, as he has 732 yards across four trips to the playoffs so far with the Titans.
Leonard Fournette (604 yards), a Super Bowl winner with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers against the Kansas City Chiefs, is also not far away, while quarterback Russell Wilson (527) surprisingly is in the top 50 for most playoff rushing yards, though his progress has stalled of late as he has not appeared in the postseason since 2020.
Most Rushing Yards Including the Postseason
Smith has the most overall career rushing yards including the postseason. He falls just short of 20,000 rushing yards overall, with 19,941 yards and 183 TDs once his regular season and playoff figures are combined.
Those are numbers that will prove very difficult to match. Payton (17,358) is second overall, followed by Gore (16,668), Sanders (15,655) and Peterson (15,330).
The only active running backs in the top 50 are Henry and Ezekiel Elliott, so it may be some time until the likes of Smith, Payton and Gore are challenged by a modern rusher.