There may not be as many workhorse running backs as in previous years, but ground attacks remain a vital part of any successful NFL team. With that in mind, here are my top five rushers of all time.
1. JIM BROWN
His time in the NFL was relatively fleeting (he played just nine seasons before announcing his retirement while filming The Dirty Dozen in London) but Jim Brown was a devastating and unstoppable force aptly described as 'Superman in cleats.' Brown rushed for 12,312 yards and scored a then-record 106 rushing touchdowns. The Hall of Famer played in an era when rushing yards needed to be earned the hard way and he was as tough as he was dazzling. Brown won a league title and was named NFL MVP three times between 1957 and 1965. He retired at the very top of his game, averaging a stunning 104.3 rushing yards per contest at an average of 5.2 yards per attempt.
2. WALTER PAYTON
Don't let his 'Sweetness' nickname fool you – Walter Payton was a menace who was tough to bring down and he boasted a devastating stiff arm. Payton toiled on some pretty bad Chicago teams during his career in the Windy City from 1975 to 1987 but he still topped 1,200 rushing yards 10 times. He was the NFL's Most Valuable Player in 1977 and finally became a Super Bowl champion at the end of the 1985 season. It was still criminal that Jim McMahon (twice) and William 'The Refrigerator' Perry scored touchdowns from the goal-line while Payton never had his number called in that game. Payton retired with a record 16,726 rushing yards to his name. The Hall of Famer tragically died in November 1999 at the age of 45.
3. BARRY SANDERS
During his 10 years with the Detroit Lions, Barry Sanders proved himself to be a human highlights reel. Several NFL defenders have told me over the years that they would celebrate like they had scored a touchdown if they brought Sanders to the ground. They didn't want to be the one on his highlights being made to look stupid as they grasped for air. Sanders could stop on a dime, spin, change direction and race away from the very best defenders. His was not mere running with a football… it was an art form. Sanders powered Detroit to the playoffs five times during his decade with the perennial strugglers. The Hall of Famer topped 1,300 rushing yards in nine of his 10 NFL seasons, maxing out at 2,053 in 1997. He played one more season before announcing a shock retirement, ironically while in London… much like the equally fleeting and equally dynamic Jim Brown.
4. EMMITT SMITH
When he came out of the University of Florida in 1990, Emmitt Smith wowed very few scouts. He had decent size and pedigree, but his speed was not about to get anyone excited. By the time he was done with his Hall of Fame career that spanned 15 seasons (13 with the Dallas Cowboys) Smith had not just assaulted the NFL record books. He had ripped several pages into tiny ribbons. The three-time Super Bowl champion retired with 18,355 rushing yards and 164 rushing touchdowns to his name – both records that still stand today. Smith ran with great vision, toughness and consistency (he topped 1,000 yards in 11 straight seasons from 1991 to 2001) and was one of the major factors in the Cowboys winning those hat-trick of NFL titles in the 1990s. Smith scored 175 touchdowns from scrimmage – second-most in NFL history behind Jerry Rice.
5. ADRIAN PETERSON
Bouncing from team to team in recent seasons may have taken some of the gloss off Adrian Peterson's career but it is also a reminder of how much he loves the sport of American football and how durable he has been. Peterson is the only active player to make the top five and currently stands with 14,820 rushing yards (fifth-best in NFL history) and 124 career touchdowns. At his peak, Peterson was a devastating force of nature who could power through defenders but also take any football he touched all the way to the endzone. His best season came in 2012 when he rushed for 2,097 yards with the Minnesota Vikings – coming within eight yards of the single-season mark of 2,105 set by the great Eric Dickerson in 1984. When he finally hangs up his cleats, Peterson will be a sure-fire Hall of Famer.