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Top 12 RBs Since the Turn of the Century

Photo by The Star Tribune

By: David Connors @DConBlitz


In recent weeks the NFL Network has been releasing its NFL 100 All-Time Team position by position. While gazing over the Running Backs awarded the prestigious honor of being part of the team, it is evident that the players of yesteryear dominate the list. Earl “Dutch” Clark certainly was an incredible player in his time, but most fans of today have never even heard the name much less know his career. Although I know the names and have tremendous respect for all the Greats in the list, I personally have never seen any of the Running Backs actually play a snap besides Emmitt Smith…as a Cardinal. Who are the best players in recent years? To decide who were the top NFL players in each position since the turn of the century, the Blitz Team ranked their best 12 Running Backs since the turn of the century. Players who played into the century were considered, but only their achievements and stats as of the year 2000 were taken into consideration. The following are the results:

Others Receiving Votes

Listed in order Lowest to Highest

  • Tiki Barber

  • Fred Taylor

  • Jamaal Charles

  • Darren Sproles

  • Clinton Portis

  • Priest Holmes

  • Eddie George

  • Chris Johnson

  • Maurice Jones-Drew

  • Honorable Mentions

Three players who received votes but didn't quite make the top 12.

Christian McCaffery

This 8th round draft pick from 2017 has spent his entire life being told he is too short, too small, only a “scat back.” Here we are, almost 3 years into his career and he has silenced all that doubted him. In a league where not only are Running Backs with pass catching skills are not only preferred but required, McCaffery has separated himself amongst the league. It does not take long to realize he just looks different with the ball in his hand than any other Running Back in the game today. He has also established himself as a workhorse by handling 91.3% of snaps in 2018 and 94.45% of snaps so far in 2019 according to Pro Football Reference.. If McCaffery can have a long, healthy career, he is sure to leave his mark as one of the names we debate as an All-Time Great.

Brian Westbrook

Similar to McCaffery, Westbrook’s size and injury history made teams hesitant to select him out of Villanova, however, Andy Reid certainly did not regret his weapon he got in the 3rd round of the 2002 NFL Draft. Westbrook was a dual-threat weapon out of the backfield for the Eagles. Westbrook racked up 1,916 and 2,104 yards from scrimmage in 2006 and 2007 respectively. Westbrook was revolutionary as a Running Back during the early parts of the century.

Curtis Martin

The New York Jets legend falls just outside the top 12 in the 13 spot on the Best of the Century ranks. Martin’s accolades were split between the 90’s and 2000s which is probably what caused him to fall short of the list, however his success since the year 2000 are impressive all the same. He rushed for 7,551 yards including a career season in 2004 where he lead the league in rushing yards with 1,697 making him the oldest player to win the rushing title in the NFL at the age of 34. Curtis Martin is a Hall of Famer and his jersey number is officially retired by the New York Jets and has cemented himself as a part of the NFL’s history.

The Top 12

#12 LeSean McCoy

NFL Experiences

  • Philadelphia Eagles (2009-2014)

  • Buffalo Bills (2015-2018)

  • Kansas City Chiefs (2019-present)

NFL Accolades and Award

  • Pro-Bowl Selection 6x (2001, 2013-2017)

  • All-Pro Selection (2011,2013

  • NFL Rushing Leader (2013)

  • NFL Rushing Touchdown Leader (2011)

  • Philadelphia Eagles Single Season Rushing Record (1,607) (2013)

  • Philadelphia Single Season Yards from Scrimmage Record (2,146) (2013)

  • Philadelphia Eagles Single Season Rushing Touchdown Record (17) (2011)

  • Philadelphia Eagles All-Time Rushing Leader (6,792)

The Eagles selected LeSean McCoy in the 2009 draft in the 2nd round. McCoy got thrown into the fire early that season in week 3 against the Kansas City Chiefs due to an ankle injury to the aforementioned Brian Westbrook. McCoy was able to fill in seamlessly to the hole Westbrook left on the offense as both a ball carrier and a pass catcher out of the backfield. That gamesl was the start of McCoy cementing himself as one of the best Running Backs in Eagles history. When the Eagles traded McCoy to the Buffalo Bills, he left the Eagles their record holder in single season rushing yards, single season yards from scrimmage, single season rushing touchdowns, and All-Time Rushing yards. As a Buffalo Bill, McCoy continued to be a very productive Running Back by eclipsing 1,000 yards from scrimmage in his first three seasons with the team. My personal favorite part about watching McCoy play was when he had the opportunity to play in the snow. When every other player is struggling to get their footing on the wet surface, McCoy seemed to get better. It was magical to watch him make a cut on the snow just as sharp as if the conditions were perfect. It was impossible for defenders to handle. McCoy has gone on to become arguably the best Running Back in Eagles history and earned himself the 12th spot of Running Backs in this century.

#11 Steven Jackson

NFL Experience

  • St Louis Rams (2004-2012)

  • Atlanta Falcons (2013-2014)

  • New England Patriots (2015)

NFL Awards and Accolades

  • Pro Bowl Selection 3x (2006, 2009, 2010)

  • All-Pro Selection 2x (2006, 2009)

  • St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams All-Time Rushing yard Leader (10,138)

The Rams traded up in the 2004 NFL Draft even though he was coming off a knee injury that still required more surgery, and was rewarded handsomely with one of the most consistent Running Backs of his era. For eight straight seasons, Jackson was a guaranteed 1,000 yards rushing, 45 reception and 300 receiving yards. However in 2006, Jackson had a career season where he 1,529 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. He also tacked on 90 receptions for 806 yards. He lead the NFL in yards from scrimmage. That is 39 more receptions than any other season he played in the NFL. Steven Jackson utilized his combination of size and vision to be one of the premiere Running Backs of the past two decades.

#10 Jerome Bettis

NFL Experience

  • Los Angeles/St Louis Rams (1993-1995)

  • Pittsburgh Steelers (1996-2005)

NFL Awards and Accolades (as of the year 2000)

  • Pro Bowl Selection 2x (2001, 2004)

  • Walter Peyton Man of the Year (2001)

The Bus needs no explanation. Very few 255lbs men have ever looked more graceful in pads. As a rookie, Bettis gained 1,429 yards which is fifth-most for any Ram in a single season. Due to a coaching change, Bettis no longer fit in the Rams offense, therefore was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers. As a Steeler, Bettis went on run for the 8th most rushing yards in NFL history. Number 36 is considered one of the legends to wear the black and gold. In the twilight of his career, Bettis helped lead the Steelers to their first Superbowl appearance in 26 years. The Bus made his last stop in his hometown of Detroit with a Ring in a storybook ending.

#9 Le’Veon Bell

NFL Experience

  • Pittsburgh Steelers (2013-2017)

  • New York Jets (2019)

NFL Awards and Accolades

  • Pro Bowl Selection 3x (2014, 2016, 2017)

  • All-Pro Selection 3x (2014, 2016, 2017)

When Jerome Bettis left the Steelers roster, he left one of the most beloved players to wear the black and gold, however, when Le’Veon Bell left the Steelers, it certainly did not sit well with the Pittsburgh faithful when he held out the entire 2018 season over a contract dispute. Even when Bell left, the Steelers fans have to admit that Bell was a dominant weapon to have on the roster. Bell was much more than just a ball carrier, his receiving skills made him one of the best 3-down backs in the league for a 5 years span. Bell surpassed 1,850 yards from scrimmage 3 of his first 5 seasons in Pittsburgh. The New York Jets rewarded him with a contract worth $52.5 million to be an outlet for their young QB. NFL analyst Matt Williamson always says that the greatest Running Backs in history are like great guitarists. If you were to listen to just Eddie Van Halen play guitar, you could pick him out by sound alone. If you took the best Running Backs in history and put a generic jersey with no number or logo, their running style alone make them identifiable. Le’Veon Bell falls into the category. His patient running style is so unique that one could pick him out by it alone. It has been often replicated but never duplicated.

#8 Edgerrin James

NFL Experience

  • Indianapolis Colts (1999-2005)

  • Arizona Cardinals (2006-2008)

  • Seattle Seahawks (2009)

NFL Awards and Accolades (as of the year 2000)

  • Pro Bowl Selection 3x (2000, 2004, 2005)

  • All-Pro Selection 3x (2000, 2004, 2005)

  • NFL Rushing Yards Leader (2000)

  • Indianapolis Colts All-Time Rushing Yards Leader (9,226)

  • Indianapolis Colts All-Time Rushing Touchdowns Leader (64)

  • NFL 2000s All-Decade Team

  • Indianapolis Colts Ring of Honor

Losing Marshall Faulk was an easy transition for the Indianapolis Colts thanks to the 4th overall selection in the 1999 NFL draft, Edgerrin James. James leads the NFL in rushing yards his rookie and sophomore season. James is statistically the best Running Back in Colts history. Not only does he hold the franchise record in rushing yards by a huge margin. He has 4 of the 5 best single-season rushing yards totals in Colts history as well as the franchise record in rushing touchdowns. James talented extended much further than just the statistics. He was considered the epitome of pass protection. Even though he was still productive on the ground, Head Coach of the Arizona Cardinals, Ken Whisenhunt, has said that signing James to a $30 million deal was primarily for his pass protection skills. James is a member of the 2000s All-Decade Team and the Colts Ring of Honor, and has the prestige of being ranked 8th of all Running Backs since the year 2000.

#7 Matt Forte

NFL Experience

  • Chicago Bears (2008-2015)

  • New York Jets (2016-2017)

NFL Awards and Accolades

  • Pro Bowl Selection (2011, 2013)

As an adolescent, Matt Forte was my favorite playing in the NFL that was not on the team I rooted for. Forte was the first player I ever heard the stat “yards from scrimmage” referenced towards. Forte was Bears offense for many years. For his entire career with the Chicago Bears, he averaged over 1,500 yards per scrimmage while being the epitome of consistency. He only missed 10 games in an 8 year span. Forte even continued his success in New York putting up another 1,000 yards from scrimmage for the Jets in 2016. Forte was an exceptional route-runner, pass-catcher, and ball carrier. He may have been one of the most underrated Running Backs since the year 2000.

#6 Shaun Alexander

NFL Experience

  • Seattle Seahawks (2000-2007)

  • Washington Redskins (2008)

NFL Awards and Accolades

  • Pro Bowl Selection 3x (2003, 2004, 2005)

  • All-Pro Selection (2005)

  • NFL Rushing yard Leader (2005)

  • NFL Rushing Touchdowns Leader 2x (2001, 2005)

  • Seattle Seahawks All-Time Rushing Yards Leader (9,429)

  • Seattle Seahawks All-Time Rushing Touchdowns Leaders (100)

  • NFL Most Valuable Player (2005)

  • NFL Offensive Player of the Year (2005)

  • NFL 2000s All-Decade Team

Shaun Alexander was the premiere Running Back in the NFL for a 5 year span. Alexander averaged 1,500.8 rushing yards a season for that stretch and 17.4 rushing touchdowns. In 2005, Alexander put up one of the greatest single season numbers of any Running Back. He rushed for 1,880 yards and 27 touchdowns. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry and 117.5 yards per game. The Seahawks could basically run the ball every play of the game and their opponents could not do anything to stop it. He set an NFL record for rushing touchdowns in a season (which will be broken soon after by somebody higher up on this list). He was awarded the MVP award and Offensive Player is the Year for his efforts. He also joined Priest Holmes, Emmitt Smith, and Marshall Faulk as the only Running Backs to score 20+ touchdowns in consecutive seasons. Unfortunately, after his legendary 2005 season, Alexander’s production fell off a cliff. Whether it was simply going over the “Running Back Cliff,” the Madden Cover curse, or the Seahawks trading All-Pro Guard Steve Hutchinson is up for debate. Alexander had one of the best 5 year stretches of productivity and finds himself just outside the Top 5 of Running Backs since the turn of the century.

#5 Marshall Faulk (1)

NFL Experience

  • Indianapolis Colts (1994-1998)

  • St. Louis Rams (1999-2006)

NFL Awards and Accolades (as of the year 2000)

  • Pro Bowl Selection 3x (2000, 2001, 2002

  • All-Pro Selection 2x (2000, 2001)

  • NFL Rushing Touchdowns Leader (2000)

  • NFL Offensive Player of the Year 2x (2000, 2001)

  • NFL Most Valuable Player (2000)

  • Indianapolis Colt Ring of Honor

  • NFL Hall of Fame

Marshall Faulk played half of his career before the turn of the century, nevertheless had an incredible career since the year 2000. He is one of, if not the best dual-threat weapon out of the backfield to suit up. He is one of two Running Backs in history to accumulate both 1,000 yards on the ground and through the air. He has the most consecutive season with 2,000 yards from scrimmage with 4. He was the first Running Back in history to lead his team in receptions for 5 separate seasons. He lead us into the turn of the century by winning MVP in 2000 and Offensive Player of the Year in both 2000 and 2001. He was the centerpiece to “The Greatest Show on Turf,” and a first ballot Hall of Fame Inductee.

#4 Marshawn Lynch

NFL Experience

  • Buffalo Bills (2007-2010)

  • Seattle Seahawks (2010-2015

  • Oakland Raiders (2017-2018

NFL Awards and Accolades

  • Pro Bowl Selections 5x (2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014)

  • All-Pro Selection 2x (2012, 2014)

  • NFL Rushing Touchdowns Leader 2x (2013, 2014)

Marshawn Lynch is only here so I do not get fined. Well that, and because Beast Mode is undeniably one of the best Running Backs of this century. There are fewer plays more memorable than “Beast Quake.” On January 28th, 2011 the 7-9 Seahawks were playing the Saints in a Wild Card game. The Seahawks were the first team to go to the playoffs with a losing record in a full season. They were considered underdogs to the Saints. Lynch pulled off a heroic 67-yard touchdown run where he broke nine tackles and threw cornerback Joey Porter with one arm. He went on to become the face of the Seahawks franchise as they go on to appear in two Superbowls. Lynch was impossible to be brought down by the first tackler and a nose for the Endzone scoring double digit touchdowns in every full season he was in Seattle.

#3 Frank Gore

NFL Experience

  • San Francisco 49ers (2005-2014

  • Indianapolis Colts (2015-2017)

  • Miami Dolphins (2018)

  • Buffalo Bills (2019-present)

NFL Awards and Accolades

  • Pro Bowl Selection 5x (2006, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013

  • All-Pro Selection (2006)

  • San Francisco All-Time Rushing Yards Leader (11,073)

Frank Gore fell all the way to the third round of the 2005 NFL draft due to injury concerns, and now he is known as the infinite one. Frank Gore has never had that one career year where he dominated the Running Back landscape across the NFL, however he has been consistently a really good player for over 15 seasons eclipsing 1,000 yards rushing in 9 of those seasons. Every season since he left San Francisco the media speculates whether this will be his last season, and every season he seems to find work and continues to produce. This savvy veteran has now racked up the 3rd most Rushing Yards in NFL history right behind Emmitt Smith, Walter Peyton, and ahead of Barry Sanders. That’s pretty good company to be in. He may not have had the single explosive season as the others on this list, but the Infinite One has been incredibly consistent throughout most of the time period this ranking is referencing.

#2 Adrian Peterson (5)

NFL Experience

  • Minnesota Vikings (2007-2016)

  • New Orleans Saints (2017)

  • Arizona Cardinals (2017)

  • Washington Redskins (2018-present)

NFL Awards and Accolades

  • Pro Bowl Selection 7x (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2015)

  • All-Pro Selection 7x (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2015)

  • NFL Rushing Yards Leader 3x (2008, 2012, 2015)

  • NFL Rushing Touchdowns Leader 2x (2009, 2015)

  • Minnesota Vikings All-Time Rushing Yards Leader (11,747)

  • Minnesota Vikings All-Time Rushing Touchdowns Leader (97)

  • NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year (2007)

  • NFL Offensive Player of the Year (2012)

  • NFL Most Valuable Player (2012)

Before Adrian Peterson was drafted, he told IGN “I want to bring people to the stands. I want people to come to the games to see what I can do next.” He was achieving this goal by his rookie season. Early in the season, he set the Viking franchise record for rushing yards in single game with 224 against the Chicago Bears. He then set the NFL record for the most Yards from scrimmage in a single game for a rookie with 361. Later the season he reset his own Vikings record for most rushing yards in a single game when he broke the NFL record for most rushing yards in a single game with 296. He was the clear cut NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. 2012 was Adrian Peterson’s best single season. His chase for the NFL rushing record captivated the country. Earl Campbell has set the record 2,105 back in 1987 and Peterson was determined to break it. Unfortunately, Peterson fell 8 yards shy of the record, but still put up a career year with 2,097 Rushing Yards and 12 Rushing Touchdowns earning himself the NFL’s most prestigious yearly award, MVP. After a suspension in 2014, Peterson lead the NFL in rushing yards again in 2015, however that will be his last productive season for the Vikings. Peterson was one of the most must see Running Backs of the last two decades and human highlight reel. Only one Running Back outranked him for best since the turn of the century.

#1 LaDainian Tomlinson (6)

NFL Experience

  • San Diego Chargers (2001-2009)

  • New York Jets (2010-2011)

NFL Awards and Accolades

  • Pro Bowl Selection 5x (2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007)

  • All-Pro Selection 6x (2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007)

  • NFL Rushing Yards Leader 2x (2006, 2007)

  • NFL Rushing Touchdowns Leader 3x (2004, 2006, 2007)

  • Walter Peyton Man of the Year (2006)

  • San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers All-Time Rushing Yards Leader (12,490)

  • San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers All-Time Rushing Touchdown Leader (138)

  • NFL Offensive Player of the Year (2006)

  • NFL Most Valuable Player (2006)

  • Los Angeles Charger Hall of Fame

  • NFL All-Time Single Season Rushing Touchdown Record (28)

  • NFL All-Time Touchdowns from Scrimmage (31)

  • NFL Record for consecutive games with a touchdown (18)

  • NFL 2000s All-Decade Team

  • NFL Hall of Fame

The Chargers traded the first overall draft pick in 2001 to the Atlanta Falcons (which later became Michael Vick) and drafted LaDainian Tomlinson with the fifth overall pick that season. He went on to eclipse 1,200 yards and 50 receptions for his first 7 seasons including a historic 2006 season where he set NFL records in rushing touchdowns and touchdown from scrimmage. Tomlinson was the perfect Running Back with both size and vision combined with unmatchable speed. Tomlinson is 7th in All-Time rushing yards with 13,684 and 2nd in All-Time Rushing Touchdowns with 145. Tomlinson even has seven passing touchdowns in his career. Tomlinson’s career speaks for itself, and that is why he is the BEST Running Back since the turn of the century.

Meet the Rankers

David Connors @DConBlitz

Alexander Amir @ajamir12

Robert Robertson @RobRobGraphics

Jack Bourgeois @jackbooshwa

Roy Countryman @PreacherBoyRoy

Cody Manning @CodyTalksNFL

Pat Pryor @patpryorgraphics

Joe Mooney @Full_MOONey25

Karen Medders @KMPSShots

Peter Vandeventer @PeteVandeventer

Ryan Lippert @Lippert42

Vic Fodera @fodera80

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