Top 10 players with the most rushing yards in NFL history

Profile Picture: Andrew Champagne

July 9th, 2021

As we get set for the upcoming NFL season, we found it prudent to take a look back. In this column, we’ll profile the NFL’s 10 all-time leaders in rushing yards, which is a list that includes some of the best players to ever step on the gridiron.

10. Tony Dorsett

Rushing yards: 12,739
Teams: Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos
Years active: 1977-1988
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 4x Pro Bowl

Dorsett joined the Dallas Cowboys after a college career at Pitt that saw him win the Heisman Trophy. He was a pivotal part of the Cowboy offense and helped "America’s Team" capture Super Bowl XII in his rookie season.

9. Eric Dickerson

Rushing yards: 13,259
Teams: Los Angeles Rams, Indianapolis Colts, Los Angeles Raiders, Atlanta Falcons
Years active: 1983-1993
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 4x rushing yards leader, 6x Pro Bowl

In just his second NFL season, Dickerson rushed for 2,105 of his 13,259 career yards, and that single-campaign mark still stands nearly 40 years later. He rushed for more than 1,200 yards in seven consecutive seasons during the 1980’s.

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Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis (36) rushes against the Cincinnati Bengals. (Photo by Jay Drowns/TSN /ZUMA Press/Icon Sportswire)

8. Jerome Bettis

Rushing yards: 13,662
Teams: Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams, Pittsburgh Steelers
Years active: 1993-2005
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 6x Pro Bowl

Bettis ran for 1,429 yards as a rookie with the Rams in 1993, but it was in Pittsburgh where "The Bus" carved out his route to Canton. He led the NFL with 1,665 rushing yards in 1997, and he ended his career on the highest possible note when he was part of the Steelers’ Super Bowl XL victory over the Seattle Seahawks.

7. LaDainian Tomlinson

Rushing yards: 13,684
Teams: San Diego Chargers, New York Jets
Years active: 2001-2011
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 2006 MVP, 2x rushing yards leader, 5x Pro Bowl

One of football’s best dual-threat running backs, Tomlinson set a record with 31 total touchdowns during his MVP season in 2006. 28 of those came via the run game, which was another record, and he also led the league with 1,815 rushing yards during that season. His 624 career receptions put him third on the all-time running back list at the time of his retirement.

6. Curtis Martin

Rushing yards: 14,101
Teams: New England Patriots, New York Jets
Years active: 1995-2006
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 1x rushing yards leader, 5x Pro Bowl

A model of consistency, Martin rushed for more than 1,000 yards in all but one season. That one outlier was the 2005 campaign, where he missed four games due to injury and still finished with 735 yards on the ground. His highest yardage total came in 2004, when he totaled 1,697 yards at age 31 to become the oldest back ever to lead the NFL in that category.

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Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson (28) rushes against the Tennessee Titans. (Photo by Greg McWilliams/Icon Sportswire)

5. Adrian Peterson

Rushing yards: 14,820
Teams: Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints, Arizona Cardinals, Washington Football Team, Detroit Lions
Years active: 2007-present
Accolades: 2012 MVP, 3x rushing yards leader, 7x Pro Bowl

One of the most explosive weapons in recent NFL history, Peterson is currently a free agent and is pursuing an opportunity to reach 15,000 rushing yards. It’s one of the few things he has yet to do, and if any 36-year-old back can latch on somewhere, it’s probably Peterson. Even at age 35, he rushed for 604 yards and seven touchdowns in 2020 with the Lions.

4. Barry Sanders

Rushing yards: 15,269
Team: Detroit Lions
Years active: 1989-1998
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 1997 MVP,  4x rushing yards leader, 10x Pro Bowl

For as much as Barry Sanders accomplished, it’s tough not to wonder how much more he could have done had he not retired after just 10 seasons. He averaged nearly 100 yards per game, never rushed for fewer than 1,100 yards in a season, and ran for 2,053 yards in 1997. When he retired, he was less than 1,500 yards away from Walter Payton’s then-record total, and it sent shockwaves through the league.

3. Frank Gore

Rushing yards: 16,000
Teams: San Francisco 49ers, Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills, New York Jets
Years active: 2005-present
Accolades: 5x Pro Bowl

Perhaps the ultimate compiler in the history of NFL running backs, Frank Gore is 38 years old and could very well eclipse Payton for second on the all-time list if he latches on with a team this season. He’s notched nine 1,000-yard seasons and was the leading rusher for the Jets a season ago.

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Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears carries the ball against the Green Bay Packers. (Photo by John McDonough/Icon Sportswire)

2. Walter Payton

Rushing yards: 16,726
Team: Chicago Bears
Years active: 1975-1987
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 1977 MVP, 1x rushing yards leader, 9x Pro Bowl

Beloved for his ability, style of play, and the way he carried himself off the field, the man known as "Sweetness" was the focal point of Chicago’s offense for more than a decade. He rushed for 1,852 yards during his MVP season, and he tallied 1,551 yards while part of the 1985 Bears, renowned as one of the best squads in NFL history. That team went 15-1 and got Payton a Super Bowl ring.

1. Emmitt Smith

Rushing yards: 18,355
Teams: Dallas Cowboys, Arizona Cardinals
Years active: 1990-2004
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 1993 MVP, 4x rushing yards leader, 8x Pro Bowl

Not bad for someone several scouts thought was too small to be an NFL running back, huh? Smith’s time in Dallas included three Super Bowl rings, and his MVP campaign saw him rush for nearly 1,500 yards in just 14 games. His 164 rushing touchdowns are also an NFL record, and he eclipsed Payton in 2002 before spending his final two seasons with the Arizona Cardinals.