NFL all-time rushing leaders: 4 players who could challenge for a top spot

By Vincent Frank
Jan 31, 1993; Pasadena, CA, USA; FILE PHOTO; Dallas Cowboys running back (22) EMMITT SMITH in action against the Buffalo Bills during Super Bowl XXVII at the Rose Bowl. Smith ran for 108 yards and 1 touchdown. The Cowboys defeated the Bills 52-17. Mandatory Credit: Tony Tomsic-USA TODAY NETWORK SUPER BOWL XXVII

Emmitt Smith’s status atop of the NFL all-time rushing leaders list appears to be safe for all of eternity. Short of the ageless Frank Gore coming through with about 2,500 more yards before he calls it quits, we don’t envision someone challenging Smith at any point soon.

It’s an interesting thing to look at. We already know today’s NFL is a pass-first league. Running backs continue to get the short end of the stick. That has led to only two active players, Frank Gore and Adrian Peterson, ranking within the top-20 on the NFL all-time rushing leaders list.

Despite this, two younger running backs have an opportunity to ascend the list if they continue at their current clips. It’s in this that we give you four current running backs who could challenge for a top spot on the NFL all-time rushing leaders list.

NFL all-time rushing leaders (active in bold)

  • Emmitt Smith: 18,355 yards
  • Walter Payton: 16,726 yards
  • Frank Gore: 15,868 yards
  • Barry Sanders: 15,269 yards
  • Adrian Peterson: 14,660 yards
  • Curtis Martin: 14,101 yards
  • LaDainian Tomlinson: 13,684 yards
  • Jerome Bettis: 13,662 yards
  • Eric Dickerson: 13,259 yards
  • Tony Dorsett: 12,739 yards

NFL All-time rushing leaders: #3 Frank Gore

NFL all-time rushing leaders, Frank Gore
Nov 22, 2020; Inglewood, California, USA; New York Jets running back Frank Gore (21) celebrates with offensive guard Alex Lewis (71) and tight end Chris Herndon (89) after scoring a third quarter touchdown against the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

It’s amazing how long Gore has kept playing at a high level. He’s now No. 3 on the NFL all-time rushing leaders list while still participating in professional football in his 16th season.

In fact, when the 37-year-old Gore started making noise with the San Francisco 49ers back in the mid 90’s, there were still “who needs Bush when you have Gore” jokes going around. It was a reference to the controversial 2000 presidential election and the emergence of then reigning Heisman winner Reggie Bush as the No. 1 overall pick in 2006. Despite a pretty solid career himself, Bush fizzled out after just eight seasons.

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As for Gore, the current New York Jets running back needs 2,488 yards to pass Emmitt Smith on the NFL all-time rushing leaders list for the top spot. Based on his career averages, Gore would break said record some point late in the 2022 season. Will he end up playing that long? If so, his son might be an NFL running back when Gore breaks said record. Imagine that.

NFL all-time rushing leaders: #5 Adrian Peterson

Nov 26, 2020; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Detroit Lions running back Adrian Peterson (28) raises his arms after a play during the first quarter against the Houston Texans at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Still going strong at 35, AD has said that he’d like to play into his 40’s. Whether that’s a possibility remains to be seen. A top-five all-time back when all is said and done, Peterson is a mere 3,696 yards from passing Smith on the career rushing list. By these measures, this former Oklahoma star would need just 44 more games to set the all-time mark.

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Unfortunately, there’s a lot more to look at here. Now in his 14th NFL season, Peterson averaged 97.3 rushing yards per game in his first nine seasons. He’s averaging just 54.3 yards per outing since. At that pace, Peterson wouldn’t break the record until at some point early in the 2024 NFL season.

NFL all-time rushing leaders: #85 Ezekiel Elliott

NFL all-time rushing leaders, Ezekiel Elliott
Nov 28, 2019; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) in action during the game between the Bills and Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

This is where it gets difficult. Gore and Peterson are the last of the old breed. Running backs today rarely see 20-plus rush attempts per game and boast shorter shelf lives. That’s why Emmitt Smith’s status as the top guy on the NFL all-time rushing leaders list appears to be safe.

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If it is going to be broken, it will take someone like Elliott to do it. He’s racked up 6,112 rushing yards in 67 games for an average of 91.2. That actually bests Smith’s per-game average by 10 yards. At this clip, Elliott would break the record at some point early in the 2028 season. He would be 33 years old. Taking into account gradual regression we see from running backs when they hit their late 20’s, it still seems to hard believe Elliott will end up challenging Smith’s all-time record. But he has the best chance among running backs not named Frank Gore.

NFL all-time rushing leaders: #139 Derrick Henry

NFL all-time rushing leaders, Derrick Henry
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Henry is a prime example of how much young running backs are at a disadvantage compared to their older counterparts. This former Heisman winner put up a total of 1,234 rushing yards in his first two seasons. In the 31 games since, Henry has tallied 2,599 rushing yards. That’s a higher average than we saw from Emmitt Smith during his career. He’s also legit the best back in the NFL today.

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Here’s the problem. At his current clip, it would take Henry more than a decade to top Smith on the NFL all-time rushing leaders list. He’d be in his late 30’s at that point. While the reigning rushing champ likely won’t meet that benchmark, there’s a chance he’ll be in the top 10 when all is said and done.