Ranking every running back drafted with a top-five pick since 1980

Sporting News
  • Ranking every running back drafted with a top-five pick since 1980

    Should an NFL franchise spend a top five pick on a running back such as Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey or Dalvin Cook?  

    That's the question, especially with Fournette, heading into the 2017 NFL Draft (April 27-29). Such a move paid off for the Cowboys last season with Ezekiel Elliott, but that has become the exception to the rule. 

    MORE: The one first-round mistake your team can't make

    Since 1980, 26 running backs have been selected with top five picks. The list includes four members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but it also includes a substantial list of "busts." That's the risk with taking a running back that high.  

    Sporting News ranked those 26 backs based on their NFL careers. Most of them didn't finish with the team that drafted them.

  • 1 Curtis Enis

    Pick: No.  5 (1998)  

    Teams played for: Chicago, Cleveland  

    Stats: 456 carries, 1,497 yards, four TDs  

    Lowdown: Knee injuries limited the Penn State star at the next level, and he never could get going after rushing for 916 yards and three TDs in his second season with the Bears. 

    MORE: NFL Draft date, time, TV info

  • 2 Alonzo Highsmith

    Pick: No. 3 (1987)  

    Teams played for: Houston Oilers, Dallas, Tampa Bay  

    Stats: 283 carries, 1,195 yards, seven TDs  

    Lowdown: Highsmith played some fullback for the Oilers but didn't quite fit in the "Run and Shoot" offense. He also couldn't overcome a series of knee injuries that led to a shortened six-year career. 

    MORE: Galko's 2017 Mock Draft

  • 3 Ki-Jana Carter

    Pick: No. 1 (1995)  

    Teams played for: Cincinnati, Washington, New Orleans  

    Stats: 319 carries, 1,144 yards, 20 TDs 

    Lowdown: Carter suffered a serious knee injury in his first exhibition game with the Bengals. He scored 15 rushing TDs from 1996-97 with the Bengals before bouncing after seven NFL seasons. He's the last running back to be selected No. 1 in the NFL Draft. 

    MORE: Worst draft picks for every team

  • 4 Brent Fullwood

    Pick: No. 4 (1987)  

    Teams played for: Green Bay, Cleveland  

    Stats: 433 carries, 1,702 yards, 18 TDs  

    Lowdown: Fullwood was known for being part of a loaded backfield at Auburn with Bo Jackson and Tommie Agee, but he didn't quite adjust to the NFL. He did make the Pro Bowl in 1989 after rushing for 821 yards and five TDs, but he retired after the 1990 season. 

    MORE: Packers best draft options for 2017

  • 5 Trent Richardson

    Pick: No. 3 (2012)  

    Teams played for: Cleveland, Indianapolis  

    Stats: 614 carries, 2,032 yards, 17 TDs  

    Lowdown: Richardson rushed for 950 yards and 11 TDs as rookie, then was part of a blockbuster deal with the Colts in his second season. Unfortunately, Richardson's career never took off. He's been on the practice squads of Oakland and Baltimore the past two seasons. 

    MORE: Browns best draft plan

  • 6 Blair Thomas

    Pick: No. 2 (1990)  

    Teams played for: New York Jets, New England, Dallas 

    Stats: 533 carries, 2,236 yards, seven TDs  

    Lowdown: Thomas had fleeting moments, including a memorable performance in place of Emmitt Smith in the 1994 NFC divisional playoffs, but he scored just seven career rushing TDs. 

    MORE: Most-hated NFL players of all time

  • 7 Curtis Dickey

    Pick: No. 5 (1980)  

    Teams played for: Baltimore Colts, Indianapolis, Cleveland  

    Stats: 937 carries, 4,019 yards, 32 TDs   

    Lowdown: Dickey rushed for 11 TDs as a rookie and had his best season with the Colts in 1983 with 1,122 yards and four TDs. That was the highlight of a seven-year career. 

    MORE: Clements' mock draft

  • 8 Bo Jackson

    Pick: No. 1 (1986) 

    Teams: Tampa Bay, Los Angeles Raiders  

    Stats: 515 carries, 2,782 yards, 16 TDs   

    Lowdown: Jackson is tough to rank because, if not for a career-ending hip injury, it's not a stretch to think he could be ranked No. 1 on this list. Jackson never played for the Buccaneers, but he returned to the NFL with the Raiders and averaged 5.4 yards per carry over four seasons. 

    MORE: Every NFL team's biggest need

  • 9 Cadillac Williams

    Pick: No. 5 (2005)  

    Teams played for: Tampa Bay, St. Louis

    Stats: 1,055 carries, 4,038 yards, 21 TDs  

    Lowdown: Williams rushed for 1,178 yards and six TDs as rookie, but knee problems lingered over the next two seasons. Williams played through injuries to both knees, but he never hit 1,000 yards again. 

    MORE: Best first-round picks since 2000

  • 10 Darren McFadden

    Pick: No. 4 (2008)  

    Teams played for: Oakland, Dallas  

    Stats: 1,301 carries, 5,423 yards, 28 TDs  

    Lowdown: The two-time Doak Walker Award winner has always had immense talent, but he has had trouble staying on the field throughout his career with the Raiders and Cowboys. McFadden does have two 1,000-yard seasons heading into his 10th year, however.  

    MORE: Greatest draft-day steals

  • 11 Ronnie Brown

    Pick: No. 2 (2005)  

    Teams played for: Miami, San Diego, Houston Texans, Philadelphia  

    Stats: 1,281 carries, 5,391 yards, 38 TDs

    Lowdown: Brown rushed for 916 yards and 10 TDs as a rookie and enjoyed a solid 10-year career in the NFL. That included a 1,008-yard effort in his second season with Miami.   

    MORE: Biggest draft-day busts

  • 12 Ezekiel Elliott

    Pick: No. 4 (2016)  

    Team played for: Dallas 

    Stats: 322 carries, 1,631 yards, 15 TDs   

    Lowdown: This is simply a place-holder. The fact Elliott is ranked this high after just one year shows his potential. Elliott figures to move up this list as long as he stays healthy and produces behind a sturdy Dallas offensive line. Elliott is an MVP candidate heading into the 2017 season. 

    MORE: 'War daddy' candidates for Jerry Jones

  • 13 Cedric Benson

    Pick: No. 4 (2005)  

    Teams played for: Chicago, Cincinnati, Green Bay  

    Stats: 1,600 carries, 6,017 yards, 32 TDs  

    Lowdown: The early part of Benson's career was marred by off-the-field issues, but he developed into a strong inside bruiser for the Bengals. He had a run of three straight 1,000-yard seasons from 2009-11. 

    MORE: Predicting team-QB pairings

  • 14 Billy Sims

    Pick: No. 1 (1980)  

    Team played for: Detroit  

    Stats: 1,131 carries, 5,106 yards, 42 TDs  

    Lowdown: The Heisman Trophy winner enjoyed back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with  13 TDs in each of his first two years, and added a third 1,000-yard season two years later. Sims' career was cut short by a devastating knee injury midway through the 1984 season, however. That ended what could have been a Hall-of-Fame career. 

    MORE: When is the NFL Draft?

  • 15 Garrison Hearst

    Pick: No. 3 (1993)  

    Teams played for: Phoenix/Arizona, Cincinnati, San Francisco, Denver  

    Stats: 1,692 carries, 7,966 yards, 30 TDs   

    Lowdown: Hearst struggled early in his career, but he enjoyed a breakthrough in San Francisco with 1,570 yards and seven TDs in 1998. Hearst was a two-time Pro Bowl selection with the 49ers. 

    MORE: Galko's mock draft

  • 16 Curt Warner

    Pick: No. 3 (1983)  

    Teams played for: Seattle, Los Angeles Rams  

    Stats: 1,698 carries, 6,844 yards, 56 TDs  

    Lowdown: Warner was selected after John Elway and Eric Dickerson in the legendary 1983 NFL Draft, and the Penn State star didn't disappoint with the Seahawks. He had four 1,000-yard seasons and hit the 1,400-yard mark twice over an eight-year NFL career. 

  • 17 Reggie Bush

    Pick: No. 2 (2006)  

    Teams played for: New Orleans, Detroit, Miami, San Francisco, Buffalo 

    Stats: 1,286 carries, 5,490 yards, 36 TDs  

    Lowdown: Bush did help the Saints improve their win total by seven in his first season, and he added 477 catches for 3,598 yards out of the backfield. He never quite matched the hype coming out of USC, but he still had a productive NFL career. 

    MORE: Ranking every first-round QB since 2000

  • 18 George Rogers

    Pick: No. 1 (1981)  

    Teams played for: New Orleans, Washington  

    Stats: 1,692 carries, 7,176 yards, 54 TDs

    Lowdown: Rogers led the NFL in rushing his rookie year with 1,674 yards on 378 carries, and he had four 1,000-yard seasons between stops with New Orleans and Washington. Rogers scored 31 TDs in three seasons with the Redskins. 

    MORE: Watson to Chicago? 

  • 19 Freeman McNeil

    Pick: No. 3 (1981)  

    Team played for: New York Jets  

    Stats: 1,798 carries, 8,074 yards, 38 TDs  

    Lowdown: McNeil is the quintessential back from the 1980s. He stayed with the Jets for his entire career, and he had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 1984 and 1985. He's the first back with more than 8,000 career rushing yards on this list. McNeil also had 2,961 receiving yards and ranks between Marshawn Lynch and Shaun Alexander in yards from scrimmage. 

    MORE: Predicting team-QB draft pairings

  • 20 Ricky Williams

    Pick: No. 5 (1999)  

    Teams played for: New Orleans, Miami, Baltimore 

    Stats: 2,431 carries, 10,009 yards, 66 TDs  

    Lowdown: Williams' career path was interesting, to say the least. Mike Ditka traded almost an entire draft to get Williams in 1999, but Williams played just three seasons with the Saints. He rushed for 1,000 yards or more in consecutive seasons before retiring in 2004. Williams returned, but then was suspended for the entire 2006 season. He came back once more and rushed for 1,121 yards with Miami in 2009. That helped him crack the 10,000-yard mark for his career. 

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  • 21 Jamal Lewis

    Pick: No. 5 (2000)  

    Teams played for: Baltimore, Cleveland  

    Stats: 2,542 attempts, 10,607 yards, 58 TDs  

    Lowdown: Lewis rushed for more than 1,000 yards in eight of his 10 NFL seasons, including a 2,066-yard effort with the Ravens in 2003. Lewis also set the single-game rushing record with 295 yards against the Browns in 2003, a record Adrian Peterson broke in 2007. 

    MORE: Top non-Power 5 prospects

  • 22 Edgerrin James

    Pick:  No. 4 (1999)  

    Teams played for: Indianapolis, Arizona, Seattle 

    Stats: 3,028 carries, 12,246 yards, 80 TDs 

    Lowdown: James and Peyton Manning should eventually join Marvin Harrison in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. James quietly produced prolific numbers during his career. He led the NFL in rushing his first two seasons; the second included 1,709 yards and 13 TDs. He also had five straight 1,000-yard seasons from 2003-07. 

    MORE: Colts' future Hall of Famers

  • 23 Marshall Faulk

    Pick: No. 2 (1994)  

    Teams played for: Indianapolis, St. Louis 

    Stats: 2,836 carries, 12,279 yards, 100 TDs  

    Lowdown: Faulk enjoyed an outstanding career between the Colts and Rams, one that included seven 1,000-yard seasons as a rusher and 6,875 yards and 36 TDs receiving. Faulk won MVP honors in 2000 and was the centerpiece of the "Greatest Show on Turf" along with Kurt Warner, though his best season might have been 1999 when he rushed for 1,381 yards and had 1,048 yards receiving.

    MORE: NFL Draft big board

  • 24 Eric Dickerson

    Pick: No. 2 (1983)  

    Teams played for: Los Angeles Rams, Indianapolis, Oakland, Atlanta 

    Stats: 2,996 carries, 13,259 yards, 90 TDs  

    Lowdown: Dickerson exploded onto the NFL scene. He led the NFL in rushing in 1983, then set the single-season rushing record with 2,105 yards in 1984. Dickerson also was part of the one of the biggest trades in NFL history when he was sent to Indianapolis. He led the NFL in rushing four times. 

    MORE: Worst draft picks for every NFL team

  • 25 LaDainian Tomlinson

    Pick: No. 5 (2001)  

    Teams played for: San Diego, New York Jets 

    Stats: 3,174 carries, 13,684 yards, 145 TDs  

    Lowdown: Tomlinson put together a prolific career that started with eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons with the Chargers. He led the NFL in rushing in 2006 and 2007 and was remarkably durable. Tomlinson added 4,772 receiving yards and 17 TDs and is part of the 2017 NFL Hall of Fame class.

  • 26 Barry Sanders

    Pick: No. 3 (1989)  

    Team played for: Detroit  

    Stats: 3,062 carries, 15,269 yards, 99 TDs  

    Lowdown: There aren't too many players in NFL history who were more exciting than Sanders, a Heisman Trophy winner whose one-of-a-kind-running-style immediately took the NFL by storm. Sanders rushed for 1,000 or more yards in each of his 10 NFL seasons, and he led the NFL in rushing four times. That included a 2,053-yard effort in 1997. Sanders ranks third all time in the NFL in rushing yards.

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