The 20 best running backs in the history of the San Francisco 49ers

You should already know the No. 1 running back in Niners history.

But what about the other 19 best rushers?

San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore (21)
San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore (21) / Greg Trott/GettyImages

The 49ers have boasted some of the best running backs in the history of the NFL, including a few household names who helped redefine the position.

The San Francisco 49ers may be known for Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks and wide receivers, and chances are those two positions would dominate a would-be Mt. Rushmore of Niners greats dating back to the franchise's inception in 1946.

But the red and gold have also boasted some of the games best running backs, too.

No, we're not going to include the infamous O.J. Simpson, whose own Hall of Fame career was defined by his days with the Buffalo Bills before being traded back home to San Francisco in what turned into an underwhelming twilight of his career. He might have been an on-field legend, but he wasn't with the 49ers.

Instead, let's shift focus to the 20 best rushers in Niners history, using a combination of stats, accolades and tenure with the team as our guidelines.

You can probably guess the top player on this list, perhaps the top three. But there plenty of others who deserve some adoration, too.

20 best running backs in 49ers franchise history

No. 20: Kevin Barlow (2001-2005)

The first rusher on this list probably wouldn't incur too many great memories of San Francisco rushers, but it's fair to list Kevin Barlow anyway because his statistics are nevertheless worthy of account.

On some bad 49ers teams, Barlow nevertheless rushed for 3,614 yards, which ranks eighth best in franchise history, and his 24 touchdowns on the ground currently sit at 12th. In 2003, he crested 1,000 yards rushing for the only time in his career.

If for no other reason, he's remembered as the predecessor to future Hall of Fame running back Frank Gore.

No. 19: Carlos Hyde (2014-2017)

Likewise, Carlos Hyde doesn't prompt a lot of positive memories for Niners fans, especially considering the team's down years between 2015 and 2017.

Chosen as an heir apparent to Gore when he broke into the league in 2014, the former Ohio State product never quite reached elite status with San Francisco and only came close to hitting the 1,000-yard plateau in 2016 and 2017.

However, his 2,729 rush yards in a 49ers uniform rank 15th in franchise history, and his nasty spin move against the Minnesota Vikings back in Week 1 of the 2015 season has to earn some praise.

No. 18: Norm Standlee (1946-1952)

Digging through the archives, one of the first star weapons in team history was Norm Standlee, who was a Pro Bowler with the Chicago Bears in 1941 before switching to the Niners in the AAFC during their first year in 1946.

As a fullback, Standlee had a career-best 651 rush yards that season and then backed it up with an eight-touchdown campaign in 1947.

Switching to linebacker in 1950 where he'd earn a Pro Bowl nod, yet still periodically touching the ball on offense, Standlee would finish his career in the Bay Area with 1,830 rush yards and 18 touchdowns.

No. 17: Raheem Mostert (2016-2021)

For most of his career in a San Francisco uniform, Raheem Mostert was merely a special teams ace who'd get a handful of carries on offense in a backup role.

That all changed in 2019, though, when he became the primary ground weapon for a Super Bowl-bound team.

And no one will forget how he almost single-handedly took down the Green Bay Packers in the 2020 NFC Championship game with a whopping 220 rush yards and four touchdowns.

Mostert won't find his way onto any significant 49ers leaderboards, but he nevertheless translated his rushing success with the team into a successful post-Niners career with the Miami Dolphins.

No. 16: John Henry Johnson (1954-1956)

Not unlike Mostert, John Henry Johnson's career took off after leaving San Francisco, ultimately turning into a four-time Pro Bowl player whose efforts resulted in a Pro Football Hall of Fame honor in 1987 after making his true mark with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

From 1954 through 1956, however, Johnson earned a Pro Bowl nod as part of the famed "Million Dollar Backfield" for the 49ers in which he played alongside other Hall of Famers like quarterback Y.A. Tittle and two other rushers on this list, Hugh McElhenny and Joe Perry.

No. 15: Ricky Watters (1992-1994)

For a brief time, signs pointed to Ricky Watters being the next generation of excellent rushers in the wake of Roger Craig's departure from the team in 1991.

Watters might have had some controversy during his Niners tenure, but he was nevertheless effective during his three-year span, rushing for a total of 2,840 yards (14th best in franchise history) and 25 touchdowns, earning Pro Bowl honers in each of those campaigns donning the red and gold.

He'd eventually turn into a powerhouse rusher for both the Philadelphia Eagles and Seattle Seahawks later in his career, but his flashy style began in the Bay Area where he was the main weapon on the ground for some awfully good San Francisco offenses.

No. 14: Charlie Garner (1999-2000)

The 49ers were in trouble entering 1999 after losing star running back Garrison Hearst to a serious foot condition, which would sideline him for two years.

No problem. Enter Charlie Garner.

Sure, Garner's tenure with the Niners lasted only two seasons, but they sure were memorable as he accumulated 1,764 and 1,789 all-purpose yards in 1999 and 2000, respectively, with a combined 16 touchdowns during that span, earning Pro Bowl honors that second season.

Despite playing just the two years in San Francisco before Hearst's return, Garner's 2,371 rush yards still rank 16th best in team history.

No. 13: Delvin Williams (1974-1977)

Another one of those players on some bad 49ers teams, Delvin Williams nevertheless deserves some recognition.

Williams, a second-round pick of the 1974 NFL Draft, had to overtake fellow rusher Wilbur Jackson on the team's depth chart, successfully doing so in 1975 and turning the latter into a fullback.

A year later, Williams finally crested the 1,000-yard mark by rushing for 1,203 yards and boasting a league-best 80-yard touchdown run that season en route to his first of two Pro Bowl nods, the other coming with the Miami Dolphins in 1978, his first year out of the Bay Area.

That 1975 total currently ranks 10th all time among Niners single-season rushers.

No. 12: Christian McCaffrey (2022-present)

There's a good chance All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey's name jumps up higher on this list within the next year or two, especially after he secured Offensive Player of the Year honors following his 2023 campaign in which he led the league with 2,023 net yards and 21 total touchdowns.

Despite being with San Francisco since the midseason 2022 trade from the Carolina Panthers, McCaffrey's 2,205 rush yards already rank 16th best in franchise history.

While it didn't happen with the 49ers, McCaffrey is one of only three players in NFL history to boast 1,000 rush yards and 1,000 receiving yards in a single season, and the Niners boast one of the two others who are part of that illustrious group, too.

Assuming McCaffrey stays on his current trajectory, there's little doubt he'll be one of San Francisco's best candidates to eventually be enshrined in Canton.

No. 11: Tom Rathman (1986-1993)

His career might have been overshadowed, statistically, by Craig and then later by Watters. But few would ever look at fullback Tom Rathman without saying he was a fan-favorite.

In an age when fullbacks rarely post offensive numbers, it's easy to look back at Rathman's notable career with the 49ers and be wowed. In addition to being a lead blocker for both Craig and Watters, Rathman also served as a dual-purpose weapon whose bruising physicality made him a force on the gridiron.

During the 1989 season, Rathman posted an astonishing 921 all-purpose yards despite Craig being the focal point of the ground attack, while wide receiver Jerry Rice commanded the offense through the air.

Rathman's 1,902 rush yards rank only 19th in franchise history, but his impact on some of the greatest Niners offenses of all time can't be undervalued.

No. 10: Wendell Tyler (1983-1986)

Craig might have been San Francisco's top weapon on the ground for much of the 1980s, but he had an excellent complementary tailback in Wendell Tyler.

Despite playing only four seasons with the 49ers, Tyler made his mark by averaging 5.0 yards per rush during that span and boasting an impressive 1984 season in which he made the Pro Bowl after rushing for 1,262 yards with seven touchdowns, then hauling in 28 passes for 230 yards on a team many consider to be the best in Niners history.

Tyler did fumble 27 times during his San Francisco span, though, which keeps him buried fairly deep on the list of all-time great 49ers tailbacks.

But, he was nevertheless a crucial element to many of those great 49ers teams of the decade, relying on his elusiveness and the ability to break tackles with ease.

No. 9: Wilbur Jackson (1974-1979)

Despite transitioning to fullback because of Williams, Jackson nevertheless turned into a vital offensive component in his own right, thrice besting 700 rush yards during his longer tenure in the Bay Area that outlasted his counterpart by two seasons.

In 1976, despite an otherwise down year for San Francisco's offense, Jackson nevertheless reached 1,116 net yards, rushing for a career-best 792. Then, a year later, he nearly matched that mark with 780 rush yards while tallying a career-high seven touchdowns.

Had the 49ers been a better team during those years, Jackson's name might have been much more easily recognizable.

No. 8: J.D. Smith (1956-1964)

When thinking about the best Niners running backs of all time, J.D. Smith isn't a name many would include in the conversation.

Sure, time bias probably plays a role, and few will recall how Smith made an impact back at Kezar Stadium between 1956 and 1964.

That said, Smith was an awfully effective rusher and fullback, earning Pro Bowl honors in 1959 and 1962 and a second-team All-Pro nod as well. Heck, in 1959 after rushing for 1,036 yards and a career-best 10 touchdowns, he was even a finalist for the Associated Press' NFL MVP award.

Despite being relatively forgotten in San Francisco circles, Smith's 4,370 total rush yards still rank sixth best in franchise history, and his 37 rushing touchdowns are tied for fifth most alongside Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young.

No. 7: Johnny Strzykalski (1946-1952)

It helps to be an inaugural member of that first 49ers team, and they sure had a great running back in Johnny Strzykalski.

Considering how different the nature of the game was during those post-World War II years, it's hard to put Strzykalski's stats into context. His 3,415 rush yards rank only 10th in team history, and he never had more than five touchdowns in a single season.

That said, he was a second-team All-Pro twice and led the league in yards per carry twice in 1947 and 1948.

During his pro tenure, Strzykalski only fumbled twice, and his 5.2 average-yards-per-carry mark still ranks right toward the top of qualifying leaders, matching the Hall of Famer, Joe Perry.

No. 6: Ken Willard (1965-1973)

If longevity and reliability have to factor into the equation, Ken Willard deserves to be on the fringes of the top five here.

He just misses out, but that doesn't undercut just how solid Willard was during his Niners career after being the second overall pick in the 1965 NFL Draft.

Playing on some solid San Francisco squads during the early 1970s, Willard never rushed for more than 4.4 yards per carry, never hit 1,000 yards rushing and eventually finished with a lackluster average of 3.7 yards per attempt during his nine years in the Bay Area.

Still, the four-time Pro Bowler continued to chalk up yards over the years, and his 5,930 rushing yards remain No. 4 all time in 49ers history.

No. 5: Garrison Hearst (1997-2003)

OK, now we're getting into the names every Niners fan will recall.

Hearst was already a beast when he came over to San Francisco from the Cincinnati Bengals in 1997, endearing himself to the Faithful with a 1,019-yard rushing campaign that first season.

But, 1998 was far more special.

Hearst crested 2,000 all-purpose yards that season and had that memorable 96-yard walk-off touchdown run in overtime against the New York Jets to kick it all off, ultimately catapulting that year's 49ers team into a postseason run.

The 1,570 rush yards he had that year remain second-most in a season over the franchise's history.

Unfortunately, avascular necrosis forced Hearst to miss the entirety of 1999 and 2000, and one can only wonder what could have happened if the setback never occurred. There's a good chance Hearst would have been among the top three, in terms of leading rushers in Niners history.

That said, Hearst's return to the field in 2001 was legendary, as he mashed out 1,206 rush yards and 347 receiving yards en route to being that season's Comeback Player of the Year award recipient.

Hearst's 5,535 total rush yards are fifth most in San Francisco's leaderboard.

No. 4: Hugh McElhenny (1952-1960)

Some would argue Hugh McElhenny was the 49ers' first true legend of a player, and it's certainly the case on offense.

Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1970, McElhenny was a famed member of the "Million Dollar Backfield" and established himself as one of the game's best rushers of the 1950s, almost always in the hunt for perennial Pro Bowls (of which he received five with the Niners) as well as being a two-time first-team All-Pro.

Again, comparing stats from the 1950s to today is difficult, given teams played no more than 12 regular-season games back then. So, less-educated fans may scoff at the fact McElhenny never reached 1,000 yards rushing during his storybook career.

That said, during his rookie season, he led the league with an astounding 7.0 yards per carry and then bested that two years later by averaging 8.0 yards per attempt.

And he was a viable pass-catcher, too, boasting 2,066 receiving yards during his San Francisco career.

Despite the contrast in games played in comparison to other 49ers greats, the Hall of Famer's 4,288 rush yards still rank seventh most in the history of the team.

No. 3: Joe Perry (1948-1960, 1963)

Nos. 3 and 4 on this list could well be classified as 2A and 2B, and fans are likely to find other top Niners rushers lists swapping out both Perry and Craig in those two spots.

Perry lands here on our list, though, because he didn't quite redefine the position like Craig did, although Perry's legendary impact that stretched for 14 seasons in San Francisco ultimately turned him into the franchise's all-time leadiner rusher until one, Gore, came along and finally broke the record in 2011.

Little needs to be said about Perry that hasn't been already. He led the league in rushing three times, including two outstanding seasons in 1953 and 1954 where he reached more than 1,000 rush yards in back-to-back years despite seasons lasting for only 12 games. Not surprisingly, he was a first-team All-Pro in each of those seasons and even took home MVP honors in 1954.

While Perry's 8,689 rush-yard record is among the most memorable in 49ers history before being broken by Gore, the former's tally of 68 rushing touchdowns remains No. 1 for the franchise and isn't likely to be touched anytime soon.

Perry was inducted into Canton in 1961.

No. 2: Roger Craig (1983-1990)

Those who feel Craig deserves to be behind Perry on this list might argue the former doesn't call Canton home, although nearly every Niners fan would argue that Craig is the epitome of a Hall of Fame snub.

Prior to Craig, running backs weren't typically known as legitimate pass-catching threats and only incorporated that element of their gameas an acillary piece.

Not Craig.

Many football scholars feel as if Craig revolutionized the position by being a true dual-threat weapon out of the backfield long before it became a trend in the 1990s and 2000s. Perhaps no other season in NFL history epitomized that than 1985 in which Craig posted 1,050 rush yards and 1,016 receiving yards, leading the league in receptions (92) along the way and totaling 2,066 yards from scrimmage.

Remember that part about the 1,000/1,000 club of which there are only three players in NFL history to achieve the feat? Craig and McCaffrey are part of that club, alongside Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk.

Craig again broke over 2,000 all-purpose yards in 1988, leading the NFL in that category and putting a stamp on a career that included four Pro Bowl honors and one first-team All-Pro campaign.

His 1,502 rush yards in 1988 and 7,064 rush yards total with San Francisco both rank third best in the franchise's accolades.

Why isn't he in the Hall of Fame again?

No. 1: Frank Gore (2005-2015)

Gore isn't just the No. 1 rusher in 49ers history, but he's also the No. 3 rusher in NFL history, too, accumluating a whopping 16,000 yards exactly over 16 memroable seasons.

Granted, some would argue longevity doesn't equate to a Hall of Fame candidacy, and he never once led the league in any specific rushing category.

But, given the relatively short lifespan of running backs in the NFL, Gore's longevity and ability to contribute over a 16-year career should be championed.

Especially considering how bad some of those Niners teams were at the start of his pro career where he was effectively the only legitimate weapon.

Gore set a new franchise record with 11,073 rush yards and ranks second on the rushing-touchdown leaders list with 64, trailing only Perry. He also made the Pro Bowl five times with San Francisco and was part of the All-2010s team.

Diving further, of the 20 best single-season rushing campaigns in team history, Gore has eight of them.

And he also remains one of the biggest fan-favorites in 49ers history, too, cementing his place at No. 1 on this legendary list.

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