Perhaps no position in the NFL has evolved more than running back. Here, we are ranking the 10 best Chargers running backs of all-time.
It was once The Glamour Position in the NFL. Walter Payton. Jim Brown. Emmitt Smith.
They were the leaders of their teams, the signature stars.
But the NFL has changed a lot since then. It’s now a quarterback-driven league, running off-tackle is out, throwing the ball in the flat is in.
Making a list of the best Charger running backs of all time shows that evolution. The Chargers have had slashers, the quick-smallish types, and the big bulls. Sometimes more than one in each category.
Before we roll out our definitive list, like other NFL teams, the Chargers also had some interesting names in the backfield at one point and time. They had Mercury Morris after his Super Bowl days in Miami, briefly. They drafted Joe Washington fourth overall, but then let him go to the Washington Redskins. The Chargers took fliers on Lydell Mitchell after his heyday with the Colts and Ricky Bell after his days with the Bucs.
Those four are interesting footnotes in the lineage of Charger running backs. These 10 are the best.
10. Lionel James
James was one of the first players I thought of when I started putting together this list, but his stats aren’t that impressive. He only played for the Chargers for five years, before a hip injury derailed him.
But there’s no Darren Sproles, no Austin Ekeler without Lionel “Little Train” James.
James came from Auburn where he was in the backfield with Bo (no last name needed). He was 5-foot-6, 170 pounds. He was lightning fast. As a rookie he led the NFL in kick returns, and in 1985, he led the NFL in all-purpose yards with 2,535. He was a receiving threat with 86 catches in 1985 and still owns the franchise record for most yards in a game with 345.
9. Darren Sproles
The Chargers took Sproles out of Kansas State in the fourth round in 2005.
He was Lionel James….only better. He was also listed as 5-foot-6.
In his way-too-short Charger career, Sproles became a running and receiving threat, but it’s almost like the Chargers didn’t know what they had.
Sproles signed with the Saints in 2011 and then won a Super Bowl with the Eagles. He played for 14 years and finished with more receiving yards (4,840) then rushing (3,552). He made three Pro Bowls.
8. Gary Anderson
The Gary Anderson NFL story is a wild one. He was drafted by the Chargers in the first round in 1983 but signed with the Tampa Bay Bandits in the USFL where he was a star, leading the league with 19 touchdowns in 1984.
When the USFL got Trumped, Anderson joined the Chargers, but it was like they held a grudge against him and he was never the main guy. Finally in 1988, he got the ball and averaged five yards a carry and led the team with 1,119 yards.
Then, he had a bitter contract dispute. Anderson wanted a $1 million, Chargers laughed. He held out the entire 1989 season and then finished his career back in Tampa with the Bucs.
7. Chuck Muncie
To be blunt, drugs derailed what might have been one of the greatest careers in NFL history.
Muncie was built like a tailback, but with the power of a fullback. He was the third overall pick by the Saints in 1976, but in 1980 they traded him to the Chargers (drugs). He led the NFL in rushing touchdowns with 19 in 1981 and was the perfect running back in the Air Coryell attack.
Muncie made three Pro Bowls, two with the Chargers, but could never conquer his addictions. He washed out of the NFL in 1984. He is on both the Chargers’ 40th and 50th-anniversary teams. Muncie died in 2013.
6. Austin Ekeler
It’s so fun doing this list, because you can see the direct correlation to Lionel James to Darren Sproles to Ekeler, who is the Chargers top offensive threat as of this writing.
His story is well-known. Undersized and undrafted, Ekeler emerged in 2017 as a pass-catching, ferocious, touchdown-scoring machine. He’s run for 3,366 yards which places him seventh in franchise history, and that number is going to go up.
The Chargers rewarded Ekeler with a four-year $24.5 million deal in 2020.
5. Melvin Gordon
Modeled after the man who is No. 1 on this list, it’s hard to remember now how good Gordon was with the Chargers. He made the Pro Bowl twice in 2016 and 2018 and is fourth on the all-time Chargers running list with 4,240 yards and scored 36 touchdowns.
Unfortunately, Gordon fell out of favor with the Chargers. He went to the Broncos where he was released midway in the 2022 season after some fumbling issues. As of this writing he’s on the Chiefs practice squad.
4. Natrone Means
Now we get to the other Era of Charger running backs…the Bulls. The Big Men.
Natrone Means (Business). That was his legendary nickname. He’s the only player – sadly – on this list with a touchdown in the Super Bowl. Means was 5-foot-10, 245 pounds and didn’t run to daylight, he ran to contact.
In 1994, Means ran for 1,350 yards and 12 touchdowns and made the Pro Bowl, and then, citing money concerns, the Chargers let him walk. He went to Jacksonville for two years, came back to the Chargers, but business was never the same.
Means is now an assistant coach at North Carolina.
3. Marion Butts
There’s no Natrone Means without Marion Butts.
Butts, 6-foot-1, 248 pounds was the Chargers answer to Christian Okoye in Kansas City. He was huge. He was a fullback at Florida State, but became the Chargers star running back. In the 79 games he played with the Chargers he ran for 4,297 yards and 31 touchdowns. He made the Pro Bowl in 1990 and 1991.
No one wanted to tackle him.
And the Chargers didn’t want to pay him either. In 1994, They dealt him to New England for two cheesy draft picks and Butts was never the same.
2. Paul Lowe
One of the greatest players in American Football League history, Lowe is second all-time in Charger record books with 4,972 yards. His best year was in 1965 when he led the AFL with 1,121 yards and six touchdowns (remember, the AFL was a passing league).
Lowe was a star for the Chargers the first time he touched the ball, running back a kickoff 105 yards in the Chargers first exhibition game. He was the first Charger to go over 1,000 yards. He had a 58-yard TD run in the 1963 AFL title game to turn the tide for the Chargers.
Lowe was named to the All-Time All-AFL team.
1. LaDainian Tomlinson
LT is the clear No. 1 on this list. He’s the Chargers all-time leading rusher by almost 7,000 yards. His career yards of 13,684 ranks fifth in the NFL all-time. Tomlinson was put in the NFL Hall of Fame in 2017, he was the NFL Most Valuable Player in 2006 when he set the still-standing NFL record for most touchdowns in a single season with 31.
From 2001-2009, he was the Chargers primary offensive weapon, but still defenses couldn’t stop him. The Chargers retired his No. 21 in 2015.