Top 5 Tuesday: All-Time NFL Running Backs

On Monday, longtime San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson signed a one-day contract to retire with the team that drafted him. His announcement marks the end of one the NFL’s most prolific running back careers, but did he do enough to crack the top five? As the debate rages on, THE SPORTS DISPENCER has scoured the records to compile five of sports history’s finest.

5. Marshall Faulk

With his rushing accolades alone, the Rams hall of famer is a near lock for this list, but his receiving prowess sets him apart. Long regarded as the NFL’s top receiving back, Faulk averaged an unheard of 64 receptions a year. He remains the only back to ever accumulate over 12,000 yards rushing and 6,000 yards receiving in a career. Faulk proved instrumental in the success of history’s most explosive offense, “The Greatest Show on Turf.” Under his leadership, the Rams blossomed. With the addition of two-time MVP Kurt Warner, the dynamic duo revitalized 1998’s 3-13 squad, culminating in a Super Bowl XXXIV victory.

4. Emmitt Smith

Statistically speaking, Emmitt Smith is NFL history’s most decorated back. In his 14-year career, Smith broke the NFL records for most rushing yards, rushing touchdowns,  and 100-yard rushing games. He remains one of two non-kickers to score more than 1,000 points in a career. With eleven straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons, Smith cemented himself as one of the ’90s top backs. In addition, his well-documented chemistry with quarterback Troy Aikman and wide receiver Michael Irvin put Dallas in the limelight. As “The Triplets” lit up the scoreboard, the Cowboys surged to three Super Bowl titles.

3. Jim Brown

In the pre-Super Bowl era, no back compares to the legendary Jim Brown. A star in Cleveland, Brown’s combination of size and speed dominated the field. In nine NFL seasons, Brown was an nine-time Pro Bowler while leading the league in rushing a record eight times. Without missing a single game, Brown gained notoriety for his punishing style of play. When describing the Cleveland back, Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey remarked, “He told me, ‘Make sure when anyone tackles you he remembers how much it hurts.’ He lived by that philosophy, and I always followed that advice.”

2. Walter Payton

On the field and off the field, Chicago Bears legend Walter Payton made a difference. In his illustrious career, Payton broke the NFL records for most career rushing yards, touchdowns, carries, all-purpose yards, yards from scrimmage, and many more. “Sweetness” rewrote the record books and was a member of the storied ’85 Bears team. Off the field, Payton’s impact resonated far beyond the game of football. Diagnosed with a rare, aggressive liver disease, Walter turned to the role of activist. In his final months, Payton spread national awareness for the need for organ transplants even though it was no longer a viable option for himself. Today, Payton is commemorated annually by the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, an honor bestowed by the NFL upon a player displaying excellence in accomplishing humanitarian goals.

1. Barry Sanders

Throughout NFL history, no man was harder to bring down than the elusive Barry Sanders. With a low center of gravity and legs like tree trunks, Sanders darted through defenses, averaging over 1,500 yards a season. A Pro Bowler in every season, Sanders single-handedly carried the Lions throughout the ’90s. This precisely is what separates Sanders from the rest of history’s greatest. All other running backs had at least one other reliable weapon to lean upon. Faulk had Warner. Emmitt had Aikman. Tomlinson had Sproles. Barry had himself. Opposing defenses knew the ball would land in his hands and strategized accordingly, but time and time again, Barry would do what Barry did best — break tackles, make plays, and run the football.

* Photos Courtesy of 6 Magazine, Emmitt SmithBarry Me Please

What do you think? Anything we missed? Who would you choose? Comment below and let the discussion begin.