Top 10 San Francisco 49ers Running Backs Of All Time

Top 10 San Francisco 49ers Running Backs Of All Time

Feature Photo: Mike Morbeck, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

This list examines the Top 10 San Francisco 49ers Running Backs Of All Time. It presents an in-depth look at each running back.

# 10 – Raheem Mostert

Raheem Mostert’s journey with the San Francisco 49ers is a remarkable story of resilience, perseverance, and breakthrough success in the NFL. Signed to the 49ers’ practice squad in late November 2016, Mostert’s role within the team evolved significantly over the years, highlighting his remarkable adaptability and skill as a running back.

In the 2017 season, Mostert saw limited action but demonstrated glimpses of his potential, contributing both in the running game and on special teams. His season was cut short due to being placed on injured reserve, which only fueled his determination to make a more significant impact.

The 2018 season was a turning point for Mostert. Initially playing a minor role in the first few games, his performance against the Green Bay Packers in Week 6 showcased his explosive speed and ability to break through defenses, as he rushed for 87 yards. His promising season was unfortunately cut short by a fractured forearm, but his performance established him as a player to watch within the 49ers’ roster.

Mostert’s breakout season came in 2019 when he signed a three-year contract extension with the 49ers, solidifying his place in the team. Throughout the season, he became an integral part of the 49ers’ offensive unit, known for his speed, agility, and knack for finding the end zone. Mostert’s standout performance came in the NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers, where he rushed for a franchise postseason record of 220 yards and four touchdowns, etching his name in 49ers’ history and helping secure a spot in Super Bowl LIV.

The 2020 season saw Mostert continue as a key offensive player for the 49ers, starting strong with impressive performances against the Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets. However, injuries limited his participation, leading to two stints on injured reserve. Despite these challenges, Mostert’s contributions when healthy were invaluable to the 49ers’ running game.

Mostert’s tenure with the 49ers was marked by his incredible journey from a practice squad member to a record-setting running back who played a pivotal role in the team’s journey to Super Bowl LIV. His time with the 49ers will be remembered for his perseverance, explosive plays, and the spirit he brought to the team both on and off the field.

# 9 – Wendell Tyler

Wendell Tyler’s tenure with the San Francisco 49ers marked a significant chapter in his professional football career. After being drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in 1977 and contributing to their Super Bowl XIV appearance, Tyler’s journey continued as he joined the 49ers, where he made a profound impact.

During the 1984 season, Tyler showcased his exceptional talent as a running back, setting a 49ers team record by rushing for 1,262 yards in the regular season. His versatility on the field was evident as he also made significant contributions in the passing game, catching 28 passes for 230 yards. Tyler’s performance that season earned him a well-deserved selection to the Pro Bowl, highlighting his importance to the 49ers’ offensive lineup.

Tyler’s contributions were pivotal in the 49ers’ successful campaign that culminated in Super Bowl XIX. In a dominant performance by the team, the 49ers defeated the Miami Dolphins with a score of 38-16, securing the championship. Tyler’s role in this victory solidified his status as a key player for the 49ers and etched his name into the franchise’s history.

Notably, Tyler achieved the unique distinction of being the first player ever to lead two different teams in rushing in two Super Bowls, showcasing his consistent excellence and adaptability in high-pressure situations. This achievement underscores Tyler’s significant impact in the NFL and his ability to perform at the highest level with different teams.

Throughout his time with the 49ers, Tyler was known for his explosive speed, agility, and ability to break through defenses, making him a dynamic threat on the field. His contributions during the 1984 season and the subsequent Super Bowl victory are remembered as key factors in the 49ers’ success during that era.

Off the field, Tyler’s legacy continues through his son, Marc Tyler, who followed in his father’s footsteps by pursuing a career in football, albeit with the USC Trojans, the rivals of Wendell’s alma mater, UCLA. Wendell Tyler’s journey from UCLA to the NFL, culminating in his successful tenure with the San Francisco 49ers, remains a testament to his skill, determination, and lasting impact on the game of football.

# 8 – Ricky Watters

Ricky Watters’ tenure with the San Francisco 49ers was marked by significant contributions that helped solidify the team’s status as a powerhouse in the NFL during the early 1990s. Selected by the 49ers in the second round of the 1991 NFL Draft, Watters had to sit out his entire rookie year due to injuries. However, he quickly made up for lost time and became an integral part of the 49ers’ offense.

Starting at running back for three seasons with the 49ers, Watters was known for his dynamic playing style, which included a unique high-step running and exceptional receiving skills out of the backfield. His versatility made him a valuable asset to the 49ers’ offense, which led the NFL in scoring and yardage each year he was a starter. Watters’ contributions were pivotal in helping the 49ers reach the NFC Championship Game in 1992 and 1993, although they fell short to the Dallas Cowboys on both occasions.

The 1994 season was a hallmark year for Watters and the 49ers. The team finally overcame their rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, in the NFC Championship, paving the way for their appearance in Super Bowl XXIX. Watters’ standout performance came in the 1994 NFC Divisional Round game against the New York Giants, where he set an NFL postseason record with five rushing touchdowns, a remarkable feat that highlighted his scoring prowess and played a significant role in the 49ers’ 44–3 victory.

Watters’ contribution to the 49ers’ Super Bowl XXIX victory over the San Diego Chargers was monumental. He scored three touchdowns, tying a Super Bowl record and playing a key role in the 49ers’ 49–26 triumph. This achievement placed him alongside 49ers legends Roger Craig and Jerry Rice and further cemented his legacy within the franchise.

Despite his relatively short stint with the 49ers, Ricky Watters left an indelible mark on the team’s history. His electrifying plays, combined with his ability to perform in crucial moments, made him a fan favorite and a respected figure in the 49ers’ storied legacy. His high-step running style, coupled with his knack for finding the end zone, made every game an exciting spectacle for 49ers fans. Watters’ time with the 49ers is remembered as a period of great success, characterized by his significant contributions to one of the team’s Super Bowl championships.

# 7 – Tom Rathman

Tom Rathman’s tenure with the San Francisco 49ers is remembered as a period of significant achievement and contribution to the team’s success during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Drafted by the 49ers in the third round of the 1986 NFL Draft, Rathman quickly established himself as a versatile and dependable fullback, playing a crucial role in the 49ers’ offensive lineup for eight seasons.

Rathman’s prowess on the field was marked by his exceptional blocking skills, reliable hands, and ability to make crucial plays when needed. As the lead blocker for fellow Nebraska Cornhusker Roger Craig, Rathman’s contributions were instrumental in creating running lanes and protecting the quarterback, showcasing the physicality and toughness that defined his playing style.

One of Rathman’s most memorable performances came during Super Bowl XXIV, where he demonstrated his all-around abilities by rushing for 38 yards, catching four passes for 43 yards, and scoring two touchdowns, helping the 49ers secure their fourth Super Bowl title with a dominant victory over the Denver Broncos. His performance in the 1989 season further highlighted his versatility, leading all NFL running backs with 73 receptions for 616 yards, underscoring his dual-threat capability as both a runner and a receiver.

Throughout his playing career with the 49ers, Rathman was a key figure in one of the most successful eras in franchise history, contributing to two Super Bowl championships and leaving a lasting impact on the team’s legacy. His dedication, work ethic, and team-first attitude made him a favorite among teammates and fans alike.

Transitioning from player to coach, Rathman began his coaching career shortly after retiring from professional football. He returned to the 49ers as a running backs coach, where he applied his knowledge and experience to mentor the next generation of 49ers running backs. Under his guidance, the 49ers’ running backs benefited from Rathman’s understanding of the game, attention to detail, and emphasis on fundamentals, contributing to the team’s offensive strategies and successes in the years that followed.

Rathman’s contributions to the 49ers, both as a player and a coach, have cemented his legacy within the franchise. His induction into the 49ers’ Hall of Fame is a testament to his significant impact and the lasting memories he created for the 49ers and their fans. Rathman’s story is one of commitment, perseverance, and excellence, embodying the spirit and tradition of the San Francisco 49ers.

# 6 – Garrison Hearst

Garrison Hearst’s tenure with the San Francisco 49ers marked a significant period in both his career and the franchise’s history. After initial stints with the Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals, Hearst found his stride upon joining the 49ers in 1997. His impact was immediate, as he became the team’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 1992, showcasing his prowess with 1,019 rushing yards and four touchdowns in his debut season.

The pinnacle of Hearst’s career came in 1998, a season that saw him rush for 1,570 yards and seven touchdowns, solidifying his place among the elite running backs in the NFL. This performance not only placed him third in the league for total rushing yards but also set a then-franchise record for the 49ers, surpassing the previous mark held by Roger Craig. Hearst’s ability to combine rushing and receiving yards culminated in a staggering 2,105 yards from scrimmage that season, breaking another franchise record.

Hearst’s contributions extended beyond his statistical achievements. In a memorable moment against the Detroit Lions, he rushed for a then single-game franchise record of 198 yards. His remarkable 96-yard game-winning touchdown run in overtime against the New York Jets showcased his dynamic playmaking ability and remains one of the most celebrated plays in 49ers history.

Despite a devastating ankle injury in 1999 that led to a two-year absence from the field, Hearst’s resilience and determination were evident in his remarkable comeback in 2001. Overcoming avascular necrosis, a condition that threatened to end his career, Hearst returned to rush for 1,206 yards, earning him the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award. This comeback not only underscored Hearst’s personal perseverance but also highlighted the 49ers’ faith in his abilities, as the team maintained his roster spot during his recovery.

Hearst continued to contribute significantly to the 49ers’ offense in the subsequent seasons, though his role evolved with the emergence of other talents within the team. Even as the focus of the running game shifted, Hearst’s legacy as a key figure in the 49ers’ rich history remained unblemished. His tenure with the team is remembered for the electrifying runs, record-setting performances, and the indomitable spirit he brought to the field, embodying the resilience and excellence that define the San Francisco 49ers.

# 5 – Joe Perry

Joe “The Jet” Perry was a trailblazing fullback for the San Francisco 49ers, where he spent the majority of his illustrious career from 1948 to 1960, and then again in 1963. Renowned for his exceptional speed and agility, which was atypical for a player in his position, Perry earned his nickname by outrunning defenders with apparent ease. He made history by becoming the first African-American to be named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player (MVP), a testament to his groundbreaking impact on the game and his role as one of football’s pioneering black stars.

Perry’s journey to professional football began at Compton Junior College, followed by a stint in the U.S. Navy, where his football talents caught the attention of the 49ers. Joining the team in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), he quickly established himself as a formidable force, leading the league in rushing touchdowns and yards in his early seasons. With the 49ers’ transition to the NFL, Perry continued to dominate, becoming the first player in NFL history to rush for over 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons (1953 and 1954).

A key figure in the 49ers’ “Million Dollar Backfield,” Perry was known not only for his breakaway speed but also for his ability to find and exploit gaps in the defense. His running style, characterized by a mix of power and elusiveness, made him a central figure in the 49ers’ offense and earned him three straight Pro Bowl appearances. Perry’s influence extended beyond the field, as he navigated the challenges of racial discrimination with resilience and grace, setting a precedent for future generations of African-American athletes.

Perry retired as the NFL’s all-time leader in rushing yards, a record that stood until it was surpassed by the legendary Jim Brown. His contributions to the 49ers and the NFL were immortalized with his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1969, and the retirement of his jersey number 34 by the 49ers in 1971. Perry’s legacy as a pioneer, athlete, and 49er endures, encapsulating the spirit of perseverance and excellence that defines the San Francisco 49ers franchise.

# 4 – John Henry Johnson

John Henry Johnson, born on November 24, 1929, and passing on June 3, 2011, was an esteemed American football player renowned for his prowess as a running back. Celebrated for his dual abilities as both a robust runner and a formidable blocker, Johnson’s football journey included a notable stint in the Canadian football realm with the Calgary Stampeders, before making his mark in the National Football League (NFL) with teams like the San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions, and Pittsburgh Steelers, and concluding his professional career in the American Football League (AFL) with the Houston Oilers.

Johnson’s collegiate football career spanned two institutions, starting with St. Mary’s Gaels before transitioning to the Arizona State Sun Devils. His impressive collegiate performance led to his selection in the second round of the 1953 NFL Draft by the Steelers. However, he opted for a season in Canadian football with the Stampeders, where he excelled to the extent of being awarded the league’s most valuable player. Returning to the U.S., Johnson joined the NFL, making a significant impact as part of the 49ers’ “Million Dollar Backfield” and later contributing to the Detroit Lions’ championship victory in 1957.

Despite perceptions of declining prowess, Johnson experienced a career resurgence with the Pittsburgh Steelers, achieving remarkable milestones including two 1,000-yard rushing seasons and setting records as one of the oldest players to accomplish such feats. His legacy was further cemented with four Pro Bowl selections and eventual induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987.

Johnson’s early years were spent in northeastern Louisiana before moving to northern California, where he showcased his athletic talent at Pittsburg High School. His transition from St. Mary’s College, which eventually discontinued its football program, to Arizona State, highlighted his exceptional skills as a runner, defender, and punt returner, positioning him as a standout prospect for professional football.

In Canada, Johnson’s tenure with the Calgary Stampeders was marked by remarkable versatility, contributing significantly in multiple facets of the game and earning MVP honors. His subsequent return to the NFL with the 49ers saw him become a key component of the iconic “Million Dollar Backfield,” although his later years with the team saw a dip in performance. A trade to the Detroit Lions revitalized his career, leading to a championship win and a rejuvenation of his playing prowess with the Steelers, where he delivered some of the most productive years of his career.

John Henry Johnson’s football journey, characterized by resilience, versatility, and exceptional talent, left an indelible mark on the sport, earning him a revered place in the annals of American football history.

# 3 – Hugh McElhenny

Hugh Edward McElhenny Jr., born on December 31, 1928, and passing on June 17, 2022, was a remarkable figure in American football, known for his tenure as a halfback in the NFL. His career spanned from 1952 to 1964, during which he played for the San Francisco 49ers, Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants, and Detroit Lions. McElhenny was celebrated for his dynamic and elusive running style, earning him nicknames like “the King” and “Hurryin’ Hugh.” He was a key figure in the 49ers’ Million Dollar Backfield and remains one of the franchise’s most cherished players. His legacy is honored by the 49ers through the retirement of his uniform number, No. 39, and his induction into the San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame.

McElhenny’s journey to football stardom began at Compton Junior College, where he first showcased his all-around athletic prowess in 1948. He then transferred to the University of Washington, becoming a two-time All-Pacific Coast Conference fullback and setting numerous records for the Huskies. His professional career kicked off when the 49ers selected him ninth overall in the 1952 NFL Draft. McElhenny’s versatility on the field was evident from the start, leading to five first-team All-Pro honors in his initial six seasons.

Throughout his NFL career, McElhenny was known for his threat both as a runner and a receiver, as well as his ability to return kickoffs and punts. By the time he retired, he ranked third in NFL history for all-purpose yards. His contributions to the sport were recognized with his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1981. McElhenny’s impact on football was so profound that the Pro Football Hall of Fame likened his influence on the sport to Elvis Presley’s impact on rock and roll.

McElhenny’s athletic talents were evident early on, during his time at George Washington High School in Los Angeles, where he set state records in track and field events and excelled in football. His college career was marked by significant achievements, including a standout performance at the University of Washington, where he formed a formidable duo with quarterback Don Heinrich. McElhenny’s college years were filled with memorable moments, such as a 100-yard punt return against USC and record-setting games that still stand in Husky lore.

Professionally, McElhenny made an immediate impact with the 49ers, with his first play resulting in a 40-yard touchdown run. His rookie season was filled with highlights, including the season’s longest run from scrimmage and punt return. McElhenny’s ability to evade tacklers and his vision on the field were unparalleled, making him a pivotal player for the 49ers and contributing to the formation of the legendary Million Dollar Backfield. Despite injuries later in his career, McElhenny’s performances remained impressive, leading to multiple Pro Bowl appearances and continued acclaim.

McElhenny’s legacy in football is undeniable, marked by his induction into multiple halls of fame and the lasting impact he had on the San Francisco 49ers and the NFL at large. His dynamic playing style and contributions to the sport have cemented his status as one of football’s all-time greats.

# 2 – Roger Craig

Roger Timothy Craig, born on July 10, 1960, is a former professional football player known for his dynamic role as a running back in the National Football League (NFL). He showcased his talents with the San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Raiders, and Minnesota Vikings. Craig’s illustrious career includes four Pro Bowl appearances and three Super Bowl victories with the 49ers. Notably, he was the pioneering NFL player to achieve over 1,000 yards in both rushing and receiving in a single season, a feat later matched only by Marshall Faulk and Christian McCaffrey. Presently, Craig contributes his expertise as the VP of Business Development at TIBCO Software.

Originating from Davenport, Iowa, Craig’s formative years were spent at Central High School, graduating in 1979. During his high school tenure, he was a teammate of future NFL tight end Jamie Williams. His elder sibling, Curtis Craig, also ventured into football as a running back, setting a precedent for Roger. The Craig brothers followed in the footsteps of another Central High alumni, Jim Jensen, who later played for the Denver Broncos. The 1976 squad, featuring Roger Craig and Williams, clinched the Iowa State Championship under Coach Jim Fox. In his senior year, Craig’s exceptional performance, accumulating 1,565 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns, earned him national recognition. His high school career culminated in a standout performance where he amassed 353 yards and four touchdowns in his final game.

Craig’s athleticism extended beyond football; he was also involved in wrestling and track and field, showcasing commendable performances in state championships and setting school records, particularly in hurdles. His unique high-knee running style, which became his signature on the football field, was partly attributed to his track background under Coach Ira Dunsworth.

Pursuing higher education and football, Craig attended the University of Nebraska, aligning with his brother Curtis and friend Jamie Williams. At Nebraska, under Coach Tom Osborne, Craig became a pivotal figure in the I-formation offense, amassing 2,446 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns over his college career. Despite a setback due to injury in 1982, Craig’s performance in the final game of the regular season highlighted his resilience and talent.

Craig’s transition to the NFL began when the San Francisco 49ers selected him in the second round of the 1983 NFL Draft. His rookie year set the stage for a remarkable career, characterized by his high-knee running technique and versatility on the field. Craig’s contributions were pivotal in the 49ers’ Super Bowl XIX victory, where he became the first player to score three touchdowns in a Super Bowl. The pinnacle of his career was in 1985 when he became the first player to achieve over 1,000 yards in both rushing and receiving in the same season, illustrating his dual-threat capability.

Throughout his tenure with the 49ers, Craig was instrumental in their success, contributing significantly to their Super Bowl victories and setting numerous records. Despite a heart-wrenching fumble in the NFC Championship Game against the Giants, Craig’s legacy with the 49ers remains untarnished, marked by his dedication and groundbreaking achievements.

After his time with the 49ers, Craig’s career saw him play for the Raiders and Vikings, continuing to demonstrate his skill and versatility. His career stats, including 8,189 rushing yards, 566 receptions, and a combined total of 13,143 yards, reflect his significant impact on the field.

Despite his impressive credentials and contributions to the game, Craig’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame remains a subject of debate. While some argue his statistics and influence merit inclusion, others suggest his success was amplified by playing alongside other Hall of Famers. Nonetheless, Craig’s career remains a testament to his versatility, resilience, and pioneering spirit in the NFL

# 1 – Frank Gore

Franklin Gore Sr., born on May 14, 1983, is a retired American football running back renowned for his impressive 16-season tenure in the National Football League (NFL), predominantly with the San Francisco 49ers. Gore stands out as the NFL’s third all-time leading rusher and is celebrated for the remarkable longevity of his career, especially considering the typically brief careers of players at his position. He set the record for the most NFL games played by a running back.

Gore’s collegiate football career was at the University of Miami, where he showcased his talent before being drafted in the third round of the 2005 NFL Draft by the 49ers. Over a decade with the 49ers, Gore became the all-time leader in rushing yards for the franchise and earned five Pro Bowl selections. He led the NFC in rushing yards in 2006 and played a pivotal role in the 49ers’ journey to Super Bowl XLVII. Post-49ers, Gore had stints with the Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills, and New York Jets, further solidifying his legacy by being named to the NFL 2010s All-Decade Team.

Born and raised in Miami, Florida, Gore’s early life in Coconut Grove was marked by his standout performances as a running back at Coral Gables Senior High School. His high school career was highlighted by record-breaking performances, leading to his recruitment by the Miami Hurricanes, where he continued to excel despite facing significant challenges, including two devastating knee injuries. Gore’s resilience and determination were evident as he overcame these setbacks to embark on a successful professional career.

Gore’s professional journey began with the San Francisco 49ers, where he quickly established himself as a key player, setting numerous franchise records and earning multiple Pro Bowl selections. His time with the 49ers was followed by productive seasons with the Colts, Dolphins, Bills, and Jets, where he continued to defy the odds and contribute significantly on the field.

Gore’s college years were marked by both promise and adversity. At Miami, he was part of a talented backfield but suffered major knee injuries that could have derailed his career. However, Gore’s relentless work ethic and passion for the game fueled his recovery and subsequent success in the NFL.

Throughout his career, Gore was known for his powerful running style, ability to break tackles, and exceptional durability. His journey from a challenging upbringing in Coconut Grove to NFL stardom is a testament to his perseverance, making him not only a phenomenal athlete but also an inspiring figure whose legacy extends beyond the football field.

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