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Right now, three of the top 20 running backs in career receptions are active: Matt Forte, Darren Sproles, and Reggie Bush. Note that for these purposes, players like Bobby Mitchell, Charley Taylor, and Eric Metcalf — who all entered the league as running backs but then converted to wide receiver — were excluded.

Games Rushing Receiving
Rk Player From To Draft G GS Att Yds Y/A TD Y/G Tgt Rec
Yds Y/R TD Y/G Ctch% Y/Tgt
1 Larry Centers 1990 2003 5-115 198 108 615 2188 3.56 14 11.1 1044 827 6797 8.22 28 34.3 6.51
2 Marshall Faulk* 1994 2005 1-2 176 156 2836 12279 4.33 100 69.8 1013 767 6875 8.96 36 39.1 75.7% 6.79
3 LaDainian Tomlinson 2001 2011 1-5 170 155 3174 13684 4.31 145 80.5 868 624 4772 7.65 17 28.1 71.9% 5.50
4 Keith Byars 1986 1998 1-10 189 160 865 3109 3.59 23 16.4 428 610 5661 9.28 31 30.0 13.23
5 Marcus Allen* 1982 1997 1-10 222 168 3022 12243 4.05 123 55.1 241 587 5411 9.22 21 24.4 22.45
6 Tiki Barber 1997 2006 2-36 154 109 2217 10449 4.71 55 67.9 814 586 5183 8.84 12 33.7 72.0% 6.37
7 Ronnie Harmon 1986 1997 1-16 181 27 615 2774 4.51 10 15.3 462 582 6076 10.44 24 33.6 13.15
8 Roger Craig 1983 1993 2-49 165 133 1991 8189 4.11 56 49.6 62 566 4911 8.68 17 29.8 79.21
9 John Williams 1986 1995 1-15 149 133 1245 5006 4.02 18 33.6 316 546 4656 8.53 19 31.2 14.73
10 Eric Metcalf 1989 2002 1-13 179 77 630 2392 3.80 12 13.4 635 541 5572 10.30 31 31.1 8.77
11 Herschel Walker 1986 1997 5-114 187 137 1954 8225 4.21 61 44.0 296 512 4859 9.49 21 26.0 16.42
11 Earnest Byner 1984 1997 10-280 211 131 2095 8261 3.94 56 39.2 275 512 4605 8.99 15 21.8 16.75
13 Warrick Dunn 1997 2008 1-12 181 154 2669 10967 4.11 49 60.6 710 510 4339 8.51 15 24.0 71.8% 6.11
14 Walter Payton* 1975 1987 1-4 190 184 3838 16726 4.36 110 88.0 492 4538 9.22 15 23.9
15 Tony Galbreath 1976 1987 2-32 170 73 1031 4072 3.95 34 24.0 490 4066 8.30 9 23.9
16 Matt Forte 2008 2015 2-44 120 120 2035 8602 4.23 45 71.7 636 487 4116 8.45 19 34.3 76.6% 6.47
17 Curtis Martin* 1995 2005 3-74 168 166 3518 14101 4.01 90 83.9 606 484 3329 6.88 10 19.8 79.9% 5.49
18 Darren Sproles 2005 2015 4-130 153 23 577 2867 4.97 20 18.7 631 473 4156 8.79 28 27.2 75.0% 6.59
19 Thurman Thomas* 1988 2000 2-40 182 160 2877 12074 4.20 65 66.3 416 472 4458 9.44 23 24.5 10.72
20 Reggie Bush 2006 2015 1-2 121 96 1274 5493 4.31 35 45.4 652 470 3508 7.46 18 29.0 72.1% 5.38

Sproles just turned 33, and entered the league back in 2005.  He was a rookie at 22, but as a late 4th round pick, he had just 42 career receptions before turning 26.

Bush was the second overall pick in ’06, of course, and he entered the NFL at just 21.  He got off to a blazing start, tying the NFL record for receptions through two seasons set by Larry Fitzgerald.1 But Bush has not maintain that level of play, and the future isn’t all that bright. He turned 31 in March, and just signed with the Bills, his 5th NFL team.  Bush had just 4 catches  in five games last year, before an ACL injury in St. Louis ended his season.

Forte, despite being only nine months younger than Bush, he entered the NFL two years later. Forte has been a mix of Bush and Sproles when it comes to the age curve: he started off strong, like Bush, but has aged well, like Sproles.  Forte had 223 receptions in his first four seasons in 60 games; In his last 4 years, he has also played in 60 games, and caught 264 passes.

Despite being the youngest of the three, Forte has the most career receptions.  Bush had more receptions last year, but given the age difference, Forte seems like the better bet to become the 5th running back — and only 3rd non-fullback — to hit the 600-reception mark.

  1. By the end of that season, his teammate Marques Colston broke that record, and A.J. Green, Odell Beckham, and Jarvis Landry have all since broken that Bush’s mark. []
  • Clint

    Nobody cares about Larry Centers. Wasn’t flashy, but yet he is one of 3 RBs (Tomlinson, Forte) who has had 100 receptions in a season and almost had 1000 yards receiving one year. The all-time leader in receptions for running backs. Not Marshall Faulk. Not Roger Craig.

    • sacramento gold miners

      Agree about Larry Centers, he never really scared anybody as a pass receiving back. Keith Byars was a disappointment as a RB, but was a useful receiver. Ronnie Harmon was dangerous in a third down role, both rushing and receiving for those 1990s Chargers teams. Wore the facemask shield before LT, and was a very exciting player. Not a smallish back, could run inside and out, with good hands.

      • Gluserty

        Yeah, the Chargers really used Ronnie Harmon the right way, it looks like it was a perfect situation for him to flourish. He offered the same skills for the Bills, but they had Thurman Thomas, so having both was redundant (plus I don’t think he was forgiven for dropping that pass in the 1989 Divisional Playoffs against the Browns).

  • Wade Iuele

    These are some long careers. I’m sure you need a lot of games to appear on such an esteemed career totals list, but I wonder if being a great pass catching back is what nets you that 10-year career.

  • Dr__P

    obligatory comments about adding Herschel Walker’s USFL stats would move him up the list a great deal

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herschel_Walker

    • sacramento gold miners

      Ditto for Jim Kelly an others. But given how Walker’s NFL career turned out, I’m not sure how productive his first three years would have been. Walker was only 24 in his first NFL season, and it was disappointing to see him rush for only 1000 yards plus during the rest of a long career. As a gifted player physically, and one of the greatest college backs we’ve ever seen, it was kind of depressing seeing the career play out.

      • Richie

        From 1986-1988 Walker was 2nd in yards from scrimmage. He was over 200 touches behind Eric Dickerson, so his average yards per touch was about 1 yard more than Dickerson.

        Then he was traded to the Vikings despite Jerry Burns not wanting to use him as the all-purpose back that he was.

        By the time he went to Philadelphia he was 30, but he still had 1,000 rushing yards his first year there.

        Walker’s NFL career was solid. I’m sure his career would have looked a lot better if he started in the USFL, instead of picking up 1,200 touches in the USFL.

        Walker had 2,000+ yards from scrimmage when he was 26 years old. Here is the list of all seasons of 2,000+ yards from scrimmage between ages 25 and 27. http://www.pro-football-reference.com/tiny/CQ1JD

        There’s 8 HOFers on the list, plus Tomlinson and Peterson who will go in. And Terrell Davis and Edgerrin James who may get in some day. That covers 18 of the 29 non-Walker seasons.

        Walker averaged 4.9 yards/carry in his USFL career. In his first year in Dallas, he averaged 4.9 yards/carry. And he did that while catching passes twice as often as he did in the USFL.

        I don’t know if anybody has ever tried to do a USFL-NFL talent comparison like Jason Lisk(?) did for AFL-NFL a few years ago. But I have to imagine the USFL wasn’t too far behind the NFL because so many USFL players eventually made the HOF and starters on NFL teams.

        If Walker had gone straight to the NFL, I think it’s safe to assume that he would have ended up in the top-20 career rushing yards. He had really bad luck to be considered an extremely valuable player on a team that was willing to trade him away. That almost never happens in the NFL. If he had stayed in Dallas, getting 20+ touches per game, his career would look different as well.

        • sacramento gold miners

          The USFL did have a number of top players who were able to thrive in the NFL, and some of those would have been high NFL draft choices, like Reggie White and Steve Young. But the NFL was clearly the superior league when looking at the rosters top to bottom. The USFL Philly/Baltimore Stars were the best run, and many believe the strongest club with NFL castoff Chuck Fusina as QB. I think they would have been routed by any of the NFL elite teams during the mid 80s.

          I would agree in the context of all NFL players, Herschel Walker had a solid NFL career, but it was such a letdown from his college career. After his strong NFL debut season, he was just 25, so I just don’t know what happened. It’s good to be versatile, but Walker was supposed to be dominant. It’s nice to be second in total yards from scrimmage from 1986-88, but he didn’t impact games like Eric Dickerson. Edgerrin James was a far more impactful dual threat, Walker was suppose to be the focal point of an offense, for at least a good part of the career, and it just didn’t happen. I give Walker credit for playing a long time, and his versatility, but most people who saw him in college thought he would be great, not solid.

          • Richie

            I just think that most RB’s careers are going to be impacted greatly if you chop off the first 3 years of their accomplishments.

            • sacramento gold miners

              If the USFL had been at the level of the AFL, I think Walker’s first three seasons would have earned more respect. Jim Kelly, Reggie White, Sam Mills, and others were able to build on their USFL success in the NFL, I think the consensus was at the time Walker would be able to do the same. Some football historians have Walker rated as the greatest tailback college football has ever seen. Even the legendary Tony Dorsett had questions about how he would withstand the pounding at the pro level.