How Does Adrian Peterson Compare to the Top 10 Rushers of All Time?

Matthew Stensrud@@MattStensrudContributor IIIMay 24, 2013

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 23:  Adrian Peterson #28 of the Minnesota Vikings waits on the field prior to the start of the game against the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium on December 23, 2012 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Adrian Peterson currently ranks No. 33 among the NFL career rushing leaders with 8,849 yards. Emmitt Smith sits comfortably at the top with 18,355 yards.

Coming off his best season in 2012 with 2,097 yards, which was nine yards away from breaking Eric Dickerson's season rushing record, the reigning MVP is currently the best running back in the NFL.

But how does he stack up against the best running backs in history, and can he remain healthy enough to contend for Smith's record?

With the running back position taking a considerable beating, a player must possess both athletic ability and longevity in order to have a chance at cracking the list of top 10 career rushers, let alone breaking Smith's record.

The NFL Players Association claims the average career of an NFL player is 3.30 years, with the average career of a running back at 2.57 years.

The NFL qualifies this statistic in claiming the average career of a rookie making a club's opening day roster is 6.0 years and players with at least one Pro Bowl selection or appearance last 11.70 years. 

However you slice it, Peterson will need to more than double his production from his first six seasons over the remainder of his career to reach Smith—a challenging task in a league that has become more pass-happy over the years.

But let's not forget who we're talking about here.

After a shortened season in 2011 due to a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee, Peterson shattered all odds by returning in 2012 and having the best statistical performance of his career. He has set his own personal goal of 2,500 rushing yards for 2013.

While that target may be a bit of a stretch, Peterson is on a better pace than most of the career rushing leaders in the NFL. Let's take a closer look at how he stacks up against the top 10 rushers:

Rank Player Yards Seasons Yds/Season Games Yds/Game
1 Emmitt Smith 18,355 1990-2004 1,223.7 226 81.2
2 Walter Payton 16,726 1975-1987 1,286.6 190 88.0
3 Barry Sanders 15,269 1989-1998 1,526.9 153 99.8
4 Curtis Martin 14,101 1995-2005 1,281.9 168 83.9
5 LaDainian Tomlinson 13,684 2001-2011 1,244.0 170 80.5
6 Jerome Bettis 13,662 1993-2005 1,050.9 192 71.2
7 Eric Dickerson 13,259 1983-1993 1,205.4 146 90.8
8 Tony Dorsett 12,739 1977-1988 1,061.6 173 73.6
9 Jim Brown 12,312 1957-1965 1,368.0 118 104.3
10 Marshall Faulk 12,279 1994-2005 1,023.3 176 69.8
33 Adrian Peterson 8,849 2007-2012 1,474.8 89 99.4

Courtesy of

What stands out in this breakdown is that only Barry Sanders tops Peterson in yards per season. And while Jim Brown is the only player on this list to average over 100 yards per game, Peterson is on his heels with 99.4. 

According to Curtis Martin (the No. 4 rushing leader), speaking to Pro Football Weekly, Peterson is already one of the best running backs of all time:

To me, as far as God-given ability, Adrian Peterson has more than anyone I've ever seen play running back. I’m talking in the history of the NFL, not just in this era. I believe he’s that guy. Adrian Peterson is the type of talent that, even if his career ended with the injury last year, he’d make it into the Hall of Fame.

Martin continued:

I don’t know any other back with his elusiveness combined with his speed, his power, with his durability. He may not have the best career of any running back, but I think he’s probably the most talented there is.

In assessing Peterson's odds of reaching Smith, let's project Peterson into 10 seasons. If he can rush for 1,600 yards over each of the next four seasons, Peterson would be at 15,249 yards, just 20 yards shy of Sanders at No. 3 all time.

Sanders himself averaged 1,649 yards per season his final four years of a 10-year career. 

If Peterson can continue that pace for an additional two years, Peterson would finish with 18,449 yards, supplanting Smith as the NFL's all-time leading rusher.

Heading into the 2013 season, it seems almost a certainty that Peterson will break 10,000 yards. If he maintains a similar yards-per-game pace, he will do so in Week 13 at home against the Chicago Bears.

And while cracking the top 10 list of all-time rushers may still be a few years out, Peterson has certainly set the pace over the past six seasons. With a steady level of production and a couple breakout seasons, the Vikings running back may eventually cement his name in history.

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