The 10 Greatest NFL Fullbacks of All Time
When ranking all-time great NFL players, fullback is undoubtedly one of the trickiest positions, given how much it’s changed over the years.
Back in the day, it wasn’t uncommon for a fullback to split carries with the tailback. And there were certainly plenty of instances in which the fullback was the featured runner out of the backfield. As time went on, however, fullbacks were used more for blocking than running the football.
Take Daryl Johnston, for instance, who was a two-time Pro Bowler for those legendary Dallas Cowboys teams that won three Super Bowls in the 1990s.
The man affectionately known as “Moose” is seen by many as one of the all-time greats at his position but rushed for just 753 yards during his 11-year career. However, he helped create some of those massive holes that Emmitt Smith waltzed through en route to becoming the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. Johnston was also a threat as a receiver out of the backfield, as evidenced by the fact that he had nearly double the amount of receiving touchdowns (14) than he did rushing scores (eight) and nearly triple the yardage (2,227).
In today’s game, the fullback position is nearly obsolete, which is why one hasn’t been taken in the first round of the NFL Draft since 1994. It’s not that they don’t exist, but true fullbacks are few and far between these days.
So, again, it’s tricky to rank the greatest fullbacks in NFL history. But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to take a stab at it anyway. As far as the criteria we used, we had to look at everything — rushing yardage, receptions, blocking ability, accolades, and even some of the intangibles that might not show up on the stat sheet.
So without further ado, we give you the top 10 fullbacks in NFL history.
10. Larry Centers
Kicking off the list of the all-time greatest fullbacks in NFL history is Larry Centers, who some of you may see as a surprise entry.
But what also might surprise you is that throughout his 14-year NFL career with the Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals, the franchise now known as the Washington Commanders, the Buffalo Bills, and the New England Patriots, the three-time Pro Bowler recorded 827 receptions, the most of any back in league history.
To put that in perspective, that’s more than the likes of Steve Largent, Shannon Sharpe, James Lofton, Charlie Joiner, and Michael Irvin, all of whom are Hall of Fame wide receivers. Centers certainly deserves a spot on this list.
9. Bronko Nagurski
Arguably the greatest two-way player in NFL history, Bronko Nagurski was an absolute force on the offensive side of the football, both as a runner and a blocker, which is why he was recognized for his contributions as a fullback on the league’s 75th Anniversary Team.
As was the norm back in the 1930s, Nagurski wasn’t fancy by any stretch of the imagination. He’d go right at defenders and typically won those battles as he helped the Chicago Bears to three NFL titles during his Hall of Fame career.
8. John Riggins
Had John Riggins not been listed as a traditional running back in the last few years of his illustrious career, he might rank a touch higher on this list. But that certainly doesn’t take away from his accomplishments as a fullback.
During his 14-year NFL career, which started with the New York Jets in 1971, Riggins racked up 13,442 regular-season yards from scrimmage and was also a Super Bowl MVP.
7. Tom Rathman
As the great San Francisco 49ers teams of the late 1980s and early 1990s featured so many superstars, specifically the likes of Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and Roger Craig, the contributions of fullback Tom Rathman are often overlooked. And the two-time Super Bowl champ certainly contributed plenty to those great squads.
Not only was Rathman a phenomenal blocker, but he was also a solid runner and an excellent receiver. If you’re looking for proof of that, look no further than this. The 1989 Niners are seen by many as the greatest Super Bowl-winning team of all time, and the offensive unit for that team is seen as one of the most dangerous in league history.
Well, it might surprise you to know that Rathman ranked second to only Jerry Rice in receptions that season and ranked third in receiving yardage behind only Rice and John Taylor, catching 73 passes for 616 yards while adding another 305 yards on the ground. Rathman was the real deal, folks.
6. Mike Alstott
Like Rathman, Mike Alsott was a fullback who could do a little bit of everything, although it can be said that he wasn’t an elite blocker during his 11-year NFL career, all of which was spent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In those 11 years with the Bucs, the Purdue product rushed for 5,088 yards, caught 305 passes for 2,284 yards, and scored 70 total touchdowns. He was a six-time Pro Bowler, a three-time First-Team All-Pro selection, and was a key member of the Tampa team that won Super Bowl 37.
5. Jim Taylor
Kicking off the top five is legendary Packers fullback Jim Taylor, who helped Green Bay to four NFL championships in the 1960s.
Taken in the second round of the 1958 NFL Draft out of LSU, Taylor rushed for at least 1,000 yards for five straight seasons from 1960-1964. His best season came in 1962 when he ran for a league-high 1,474 and scored a league-best 19 touchdowns, also adding 22 receptions for 106 yards en route to winning NFL MVP.
In 10 NFL seasons, the last of which was spent with the New Orleans Saints, the Louisiana native rushed for 8,597 yards, recorded 225 receptions for 1,756 yards, and scored 93 total touchdowns.
4. Marion Motley
Credited as one of the first Black players of the modern era, Marion Motley was the starting fullback for the Cleveland Browns in their first year of existence in 1946 and led the franchise to four straight AAFC titles.
And when the Browns were absorbed into the NFL in 1950, Motley continued to thrive as he led the league in rushing while also leading Cleveland to yet another championship, earning First-Team All-Pro honors in the process. And he accomplished all of this while dealing with constant racism, which continued throughout his career, which was unfortunately cut short due to injury.
Motley’s average of 5.7 yards per carry remains the highest in NFL history for any back, and he was a member of both the 75th and 100th Anniversary squads.
3. Larry Csonka
While Larry Csonka spent three years with the New York Giants, he’s obviously remembered most for his time with the Miami Dolphins, with whom he was part of one of the most dangerous backfields in NFL history. With Mercury Morris at tailback and Csonka at fullback, the Dolphins were one of the most dominant teams of the early 1970s and won back-to-back Super Bowls, the first title team being the famed group that went undefeated in 1972.
As for Csonka specifically, the Ohio native was a five-time Pro Bowler, a three-time All-Pro selection, and was the MVP of the Dolphins’ second Super Bowl win. He also twice finished in the top six of the NFL MVP vote.
Csonka rushed for at least 1,000 yards three years in a row and ended his career with 8,081 yards on the ground and 64 rushing touchdowns.
2. Franco Harris
While some may see the late great Franco Harris as more of a tailback, the only time he was officially listed as a running back was during his rookie season with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1972. For the remaining dozen years of his career, including that lone season with the Seattle Seahawks, he was listed as a fullback.
So with that being the case, it’s hard not to put Harris near the top of this legendary list.
In 13 NFL seasons, the New Jersey native rushed for 12,120 yards, good for 15th on the all-time list, and caught 307 passes for 2,287 yards. In total, he scored 100 total regular-season touchdowns. Harris was a nine-time Pro Bowler, a three-time All-Pro selection, a four-time Super Bowl champion, a Super Bowl MVP, and surpassed the 1,000-yard mark eight times.
1. Jim Brown
Last and certainly not least, we come to the great Jim Brown.
While the Syracuse product didn’t have a long NFL career, playing from just 1957 to 1965, he undoubtedly left his mark. In his nine-year career, all of which was spent with the Cleveland Browns, the Hall of Famer was an eight-time rushing leader, a nine-time Pro Bowler, a nine-time All-Pro selection, a five-time rushing touchdowns leader, a three-time NFL MVP, and a one-time NFL champion.
Brown ended his career with 12,312 rushing yards, at the time the most in NFL history, and still good for 11th on the all-time list.