Quarterbacks understandably steal the limelight in the NFL but the running game remains key to any offence, with Derrick Henry, Jonathan Taylor and Saquon Barkley just three of the players making big waves on the ground this season.
Here are our five best running backs to have ever played the game, although not everyone may agree with the final shortlist, given the depth of talent throughout the years.
Eric Dickerson – Los Angeles Rams (1983-1987), Indianapolis Colts (1987-1991), Los Angeles Raiders (1992), Atlanta Falcons (1993)
Eric Dickerson was drafted in 1983 and instantly set the NFL alight and had injury not so badly impacted his career, who knows where he may have ended up in the all-time standings, in terms of yards on the ground.
Dickerson passed the 1,000 mark in each of his first seven seasons in the NFL to aggregate 11,226 total rushing yards and 82 touchdowns in that spell. He ultimately finished with 13,259 yards to lie ninth in the all-time standings.
The Southern Methodist University Mustang still holds the single-season record of 2,105 yards set in 1984, while he rushed for 248 yards against the Dallas Cowboys to set a post-season record two years later.
Emmitt Smith – Dallas Cowboys (1990-2002), Arizona Cardinals (2003-2004)
Drafted the year after a certain Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith was selected by the Dallas Cowboys to back up the acquisition of Troy Aikman in the previous season, and it turned out to be a shrewd call at pick 17 as America’s Team became a dominant force.
Smith’s production on the ground was relentless, registering 11 consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, albeit behind a tremendous offensive line, helping the Cowboys win the Super Bowl in 1992, 1993 and 1995. The second of those was particularly sweet for Smith as he also won the rushing crown, MVP and Super Bowl MVP in that same season.
Smith ultimately finished his career as the all-time leading rusher in NFL history, finally bowing out having amassed 18,355 yards from 4,409 carries at an average of 4.2 yards per carry, while he also ran for a best-ever 164 touchdowns.
Walter Payton – Chicago Bears (1957-1987)
Walter Payton was an inspiration for the only team he played for in the NFL, the Chicago Bears, and finally ended his wait for a Super Bowl ring that his talent deserved towards the end of his career in 1985.
“Sweetness” hung up his boots in 1987 with the then-record of 16,726 rushing yards from 3,838 carries at an average of 4.4 yards per carry, while he provided a dual threat to his running power with 492 receptions for more than 4,500 yards while he threw eight touchdown passes.
Payton also proved his durability as he played for 186 matches on the bounce at one point during his career, missing just one game before calling it a day.
A nine-time Pro Bowler and five-time first-team All-Pro, Payton also did so much off the field with the NFL Man of the Year Award having been named in his honour.
Barry Sanders – Detroit Lions (1989-1998)
Barry Sanders also played for just one team in what was unfortunately for supporters at the time, a shorter career than it could have been, ultimately ending without the big prize of a Super Bowl ring.
Of all the players on this list, Sanders arguably had the biggest single impact on his franchise, leading the Detroit Lions into the post-season conversations and helping them record their first play-off win since 1958 after being drafted number three in 1989.
Sanders passed the 1,000-yard mark and was voted to the Pro Bowl in every season of his career, while he became the first player to register five 1,500-yard seasons, four of them consecutively, despite carrying Detroit almost single-handedly.
“Lion King” hung up his cleats with 15,269 yards to his name at an average of 5.0 yards per carry and 99 rushing touchdowns, and would surely have broken Payton’s then all-time record with 1,457 yards to go had he continued.
Jim Brown – Cleveland Browns (1957-1965)
Another one-club man, Jim Brown’s impact on the sport sees him regarded as one of the best ever players, let alone running backs, as he dominated for the nine seasons he was playing before he cut his career short to go into acting.
His combination of power and speed made him almost impossible to stop and he led the league in rushing yards for eight of his nine seasons, retiring with the records for rushing yards (12,312), carries (2,359), rushing touchdowns (106) and an average of 104.3 rushing yards per game – which is still standing to this day.
A nine-time Pro Bowler and eight-time first-team All-Pro selection, Brown won his only NFL championship in 1964 while he also took MVP honours in 1957, 1958 and 1965.