Using data from my go to site for stats: pfref.com, I compiled a list of stats for the top 10 (non-active) running backs in NFL history (according to career rushing yardage).  I included just a couple items in the chart below: 1) career rushing attempts coming into the season; and 2) the yards-per-carry average for that season.  The running backs included in this is a  who’s who of running backs: Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Curtis Martin, LaDainian Tomlinson, Jerome Bettis, Eric Dickerson, Tony Dorsett, Jim Brown, and Marshall Faulk.

Top 10 NFL RB's (career rushing yards) averages yards-per-carry each season

The x-axis gives the total number of carries the player had coming into the season. The y-axis gives his yards-per-carry average in that season.

In the above chart the x-axis along the bottom from left to right gives us the total career carries the player had coming into that season.  So, every player came into his first season with 0 career carries, which is why  that first column of data is all in perfect alignment on the far left of the chart.  The y-axis, up and down from bottom to top is the yards-per-carry average the player had for that season.  No attempt has been made to distinguish one player from the other since what we’re after here is not which player was better, but rather how the number of career carries the player has already had affects his efficiency going forward in his career.

There are a few things that really stand out to me when looking at this chart.  The first is how you will notice none of these great players averaged 5+ yards per carry after hitting that 2,500 career carry milestone, and really only one of the ten was able to do this after about 2,100 career carries (2,070 carries, Jim Brown, 1965), and that was Barry Sanders who averaged 6.1 per carry at 2,384 career carries coming into the 1997 season.  So, basically, only one of these guys was able to average better than 5.0 per carry after racking up 2,100+ carries coming into the season.

Another thing to notice is after the 3,000 career carry mark, only one of these guys came anywhere close to having a 5.0 yards-per-carry average.  The rest were all basically in the very low 4’s or between 3.0 and 4.0 per carry.  After 3,500 carries only one player was able to break 4.0 yards-per-carry.

Keep in mind, these are all elite players in this list.  You see a lot of 5.0 to 6.0 averages early in their careers (prior to the 2,100 or so rushing attempts number), and even a few 6.0+ years in there.

I’m going to say we start seeing the first dropoff at around 2,100 career carries.  That’s when those 5.0+ average seasons all dry up (with one exception as mentioned above).   The next dropoff is at about 3,000 carries, after which you’re not seeing those high 4’s in the averages anymore.   After around 3,400 carries it becomes increasingly difficult even to hit that 4.0 YPC number.

The Saints just recently signed (this offseason at the time of this writing) Adrian Peterson, who is truly one of the best running backs ever to play the game.  I’ll take AD in his prime over anybody else on this list.  Seriously.  But that’s AD in his prime, not the 2017 incarnation.  He’s coming into the season with 2,418 career carries under his belt.  If he breaks 5.0 yards per carry this year he’ll do something none of these 10 greatest ever running backs were ever able to do.

For sake of completeness, here is the spreadsheet data the above chart was based on:

Emmitt Smith
Career Rushes Rushing Rushing Rushing
Year Age Tm coming into year Rush Yds Y/A AV
1990* 21 DAL 0 241 937 3.9 8
1991* 22 DAL 241 365 1563 4.3 17
1992*+ 23 DAL 606 373 1713 4.6 20
1993*+ 24 DAL 979 283 1486 5.3 20
1994*+ 25 DAL 1262 368 1484 4 17
1995*+ 26 DAL 1630 377 1773 4.7 20
1996 27 DAL 2007 327 1204 3.7 10
1997 28 DAL 2334 261 1074 4.1 9
1998* 29 DAL 2595 319 1332 4.2 12
1999* 30 DAL 2914 329 1397 4.2 11
2000 31 DAL 3243 294 1203 4.1 9
2001 32 DAL 3537 261 1021 3.9 6
2002 33 DAL 3798 254 975 3.8 4
2003 34 ARI 4052 90 256 2.8 2
2004 35 ARI 4142 267 937 3.5 5
Career Career 4409 4409 18355 4.2 170
13 yrs 13 yrs DAL 4052 17162 4.2 163
2 yrs 2 yrs ARI 357 1193 3.3 7
Walter Payton
Career Rushes Rushing Rushing Rushing
Year Age Tm coming into year Rush Yds Y/A AV
1975 21 CHI 0 196 679 3.5 6
1976*+ 22 CHI 196 311 1390 4.5 14
1977*+ 23 CHI 507 339 1852 5.5 20
1978* 24 CHI 846 333 1395 4.2 15
1979* 25 CHI 1179 369 1610 4.4 15
1980*+ 26 CHI 1548 317 1460 4.6 15
1981 27 CHI 1865 339 1222 3.6 8
1982 28 CHI 2204 148 596 4 10
1983* 29 CHI 2352 314 1421 4.5 13
1984*+ 30 CHI 2666 381 1684 4.4 16
1985*+ 31 CHI 3047 324 1551 4.8 18
1986* 32 CHI 3371 321 1333 4.2 12
1987 33 CHI 3692 146 533 3.7 6
Career Career 3838 3838 16726 4.4 168
Barry Sanders
Career Rushes Rushing Rushing Rushing
Year Age Tm coming into year Rush Yds Y/A AV
1989*+ 21 DET 0 280 1470 5.3 13
1990*+ 22 DET 280 255 1304 5.1 17
1991*+ 23 DET 535 342 1548 4.5 16
1992* 24 DET 877 312 1352 4.3 12
1993* 25 DET 1189 243 1115 4.6 10
1994*+ 26 DET 1432 331 1883 5.7 20
1995*+ 27 DET 1763 314 1500 4.8 16
1996* 28 DET 2077 307 1553 5.1 14
1997*+ 29 DET 2384 335 2053 6.1 19
1998* 30 DET 2719 343 1491 4.3 13
Career Career 3062 3062 15269 5 150
Curtis Martin
Career Rushes Rushing Rushing Rushing
Year Age Tm coming into year Rush Yds Y/A AV
1995* 22 NWE 0 368 1487 4 10
1996* 23 NWE 368 316 1152 3.6 13
1997 24 NWE 684 274 1160 4.2 13
1998* 25 NYJ 958 369 1287 3.5 13
1999 26 NYJ 1327 367 1464 4 14
2000 27 NYJ 1694 316 1204 3.8 10
2001* 28 NYJ 2010 333 1513 4.5 15
2002 29 NYJ 2343 261 1094 4.2 12
2003 30 NYJ 2604 323 1308 4 11
2004*+ 31 NYJ 2927 371 1697 4.6 14
2005 32 NYJ 3298 220 735 3.3 4
Career Career 3518 3518 14101 4 129
8 yrs 8 yrs NYJ 2560 10302 4 93
3 yrs 3 yrs NWE 958 3799 4 36
LaDainian Tomlinson
Career Rushes Rushing Rushing Rushing
Year Age Tm coming into year Rush Yds Y/A AV
2001 22 SDG 0 339 1236 3.6 10
2002* 23 SDG 339 372 1683 4.5 15
2003 24 SDG 711 313 1645 5.3 19
2004*+ 25 SDG 1024 339 1335 3.9 18
2005* 26 SDG 1363 339 1462 4.3 18
2006*+ 27 SDG 1702 348 1815 5.2 26
2007*+ 28 SDG 2050 315 1474 4.7 18
2008 29 SDG 2365 292 1110 3.8 13
2009 30 SDG 2657 223 730 3.3 7
2010 31 NYJ 2880 219 914 4.2 8
2011 32 NYJ 3099 75 280 3.7 5
Career Career 3174 3174 13684 4.3 157
9 yrs 9 yrs SDG 2880 12490 4.3 144
2 yrs 2 yrs NYJ 294 1194 4.1 13
Jerome Bettis
Career Rushes Rushing Rushing Rushing
Year Age Tm coming into year Rush Yds Y/A AV
1993*+ 21 RAM 0 294 1429 4.9 12
1994* 22 RAM 294 319 1025 3.2 8
1995 23 STL 613 183 637 3.5 4
1996*+ 24 PIT 796 320 1431 4.5 11
1997* 25 PIT 1116 375 1665 4.4 15
1998 26 PIT 1491 316 1185 3.8 6
1999 27 PIT 1807 299 1091 3.6 9
2000 28 PIT 2106 355 1341 3.8 10
2001* 29 PIT 2461 225 1072 4.8 8
2002 30 PIT 2686 187 666 3.6 5
2003 31 PIT 2873 246 811 3.3 4
2004* 32 PIT 3119 250 941 3.8 7
2005 33 PIT 3369 110 368 3.3 3
Career Career 3479 3479 13662 3.9 102
10 yrs 10 yrs PIT 2683 10571 3.9 78
3 yrs 3 yrs RAM-STL 796 3091 3.9 24
Eric Dickerson
Career Rushes Rushing Rushing Rushing
Year Age Tm coming into year Rush Yds Y/A AV
1983*+ 23 RAM 0 390 1808 4.6 15
1984*+ 24 RAM 390 379 2105 5.6 17
1985 25 RAM 769 292 1234 4.2 9
1986*+ 26 RAM 1061 404 1821 4.5 13
1987*+ 27 2TM 1465 283 1288 4.6 11
*+ RAM 1748 60 277 4.6 2
*+ IND 1808 223 1011 4.5 9
1988*+ 28 IND 2031 388 1659 4.3 19
1989* 29 IND 2419 314 1311 4.2 10
1990 30 IND 2733 166 677 4.1 6
1991 31 IND 2899 167 536 3.2 4
1992 32 RAI 3066 187 729 3.9 5
1993 33 ATL 3253 26 91 3.5 1
Career Career 3279 2996 13259 4.4 110
5 yrs 5 yrs IND 1258 5194 4.1 48
5 yrs 5 yrs RAM 1525 7245 4.8 56
1 yr 1 yr ATL 26 91 3.5 1
1 yr 1 yr RAI 187 729 3.9 5
Tony Dorsett
Career Rushes Rushing Rushing Rushing
Year Age Tm coming into year Rush Yds Y/A AV
1977 23 DAL 0 208 1007 4.8 16
1978* 24 DAL 208 290 1325 4.6 17
1979 25 DAL 498 250 1107 4.4 12
1980 26 DAL 748 278 1185 4.3 13
1981*+ 27 DAL 1026 342 1646 4.8 14
1982* 28 DAL 1368 177 745 4.2 14
1983* 29 DAL 1545 289 1321 4.6 13
1984 30 DAL 1834 302 1189 3.9 9
1985 31 DAL 2136 305 1307 4.3 12
1986 32 DAL 2441 184 748 4.1 7
1987 33 DAL 2625 130 456 3.5 5
1988 34 DEN 2755 181 703 3.9 6
Career Career 2936 2936 12739 4.3 138
11 yrs 11 yrs DAL 2755 12036 4.4 132
1 yr 1 yr DEN 181 703 3.9 6
Jim Brown
Career Rushes Rushing Rushing Rushing
Year Age Tm coming into year Rush Yds Y/A AV
1957*+ 21 CLE 0 202 942 4.7
1958*+ 22 CLE 202 257 1527 5.9
1959*+ 23 CLE 459 290 1329 4.6
1960*+ 24 CLE 749 215 1257 5.8 21
1961*+ 25 CLE 964 305 1408 4.6 19
1962* 26 CLE 1269 230 996 4.3 16
1963*+ 27 CLE 1499 291 1863 6.4 22
1964*+ 28 CLE 1790 280 1446 5.2 23
1965*+ 29 CLE 2070 289 1544 5.3 21
Career Career 2359 2359 12312 5.2 122
Marshall Faulk
Career Rushes Rushing Rushing Rushing
Year Age Tm coming into year Rush Yds Y/A AV
1994* 21 IND 0 314 1282 4.1 16
1995* 22 IND 314 289 1078 3.7 13
1996 23 IND 603 198 587 3 9
1997 24 IND 801 264 1054 4 12
1998* 25 IND 1065 324 1319 4.1 18
1999*+ 26 STL 1389 253 1381 5.5 25
2000*+ 27 STL 1642 253 1359 5.4 22
2001*+ 28 STL 1895 260 1382 5.3 22
2002* 29 STL 2155 212 953 4.5 9
2003 30 STL 2367 209 818 3.9 9
2004 31 STL 2576 195 774 4 7
2005 32 STL 2771 65 292 4.5 4
Career Career 2836 2836 12279 4.3 166
7 yrs 7 yrs STL 1447 6959 4.8 98
5 yrs 5 yrs IND 1389 5320 3.8 68
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