The history of the New England Patriots is made up of all-time talent.
Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback who ever lived. Rob Gronkowski had the most dominant stretch the NFL has ever seen out of a tight end. Sports Illustrated proclaimed John Hannah the “Greatest Offensive Lineman of All Time” halfway through his playing career. But, one position that has always seemed to elude the Patriots in terms of top-end talent has been running back.
Sure, they’ve seen some incredible seasons out of running backs. LeGarrette Blount scored 18 touchdowns in 2016. Corey Dillon’s 2004 season was one of the best all-around years any Patriot skill player has ever had. But, like many other things in New England’s storied history, the greatest running backs are guys who won, and stuck out due to longevity.
Here are the absolute best.
5. Curtis Martin (1995-1997)
Ok, so maybe you don’t need longevity to stick out in New England. Despite playing only three seasons with the Patriots, Curtis Martin left quite the footprint on the franchise’s history — placing fourth on the franchise’s all-time rushing list by the end of his tenure. The 1995 third-round pick averaged over 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns in each of his seasons in Foxboro, adding two Pro-Bowl nods and the 1995 Offensive Rookie of the Year award. A threat through the air as well, Martin finished his Patriots career with 117 receptions for 890 yards and five receiving touchdowns to go along with his 3,799 yards and 32 touchdowns on the ground. All done in just 45 games played.
Martin is the only running back in the Pro Football Hall of Fame to have worn a Patriots uniform. That alone is good enough to crack a spot on this list.
4. Sam Cunningham (1973-1982)
Placing the franchise’s all-time leading rusher in fourth place is probably taboo, but the numbers surrounding Sam “Bam” Cunningham’s 5,453 yards aren’t too hot. To start, his 40 fumbles are most in franchise history among running backs, and his 3.9 yards per carry ranks 36th all-time among players with at least 100 in franchise history — below players like Patrick Pass, Lawrence Maroney and Jonas Gray.
Now that we’ve thoroughly trashed him, let’s get real and appreciate just how good Cunningham truly was. He led the 1978 Patriots in rushing with 768 yards. Not a tremendous individual effort, but that group held the NFL’s single-season team rushing record until 2019. He made the Pro-Bowl that season and would eventually be inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame in 2010. He is also the older brother of legendary NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham.
3. Jim Nance (1965-1971)
Much like Martin’s lack of longevity, Jim Nance’s lack of winning holds him back on this list. In his seven season’s as Boston/New England’s feature back, Nance carried the Patriots to a 31-62 record. In all fairness to the Syracuse alum, it wasn’t exactly his fault, as he rushed for 5,323 yards and 45 touchdowns over that span. What gives him the edge over Cunningham is the fact that he came within 130 yards of the franchise’s best mark in 13 fewer career games.
Nance was the AFL MVP in 1966, AFL Comeback Player of the Year in 1969 and made three All-AFL teams. He was inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame in 2009.
2. Kevin Faulk (1999-2011)
Thirteen seasons. Three-time Super Bowl champion. 8,145 all-purpose yards. 32 touchdowns. Kevin Faulk was a swiss-army knife, and that’s what made him so great.
Faulk could do everything for the Patriots. He could handle the bulk of the carries on the ground. He could stay in and block for the quarterback. He could run routes from the backfield or split out wide. He could be used as a gunner on New England’s special teams units. Oh yeah, he was also used as the primary kick returner for six seasons. Faulk was asked to do nearly everything for the Patriots and he did it all well. In a battle of longevity or winning attitude, no one can beat the 2016 Patriots Hall of Famer.
1. James White (2014-2021)
If James White retired the day after Super Bowl LI he would have cracked this list. Perhaps the franchise’s greatest individual Super Bowl performance, White’s 139 yards and three touchdowns led a comeback from 25 points down against the Atlanta Falcons. His 14 receptions and three touchdowns in that game are both Super Bowl records.
Oh yeah, he is also one of Brady’s most trusted pass catchers ever and racked up three Super Bowl wins in his eight-year career. The four-time captain finished his career with 5,062 all-purpose yards and scored 28 touchdowns across the regular and postseason before his retirement in 2022. White built an entire career off of his Super Bowl heroics. That’s why he’s the greatest running back in Patriots history.
Honorable Mention: LeGarrette Blount (2013-2016), John Stephens (1988-1992), Corey Dillon (2004-2006), Tony Collins (1981-1987)