Oklahoma is the heavy favorite to repeat as Big 12 champions in 2016, so it should be no surprise the Sooners dominate in Athlon’s projected top 35 players in the conference. Quarterback Baker Mayfield edges Texas Tech signal-caller Patrick Mahomes for the top spot within the Big 12, with Oklahoma running back Samaje Perine at No. 3 and standout defenders Jordan Thomas (No. 8) and Charles Walker (No. 9) also checking in the top 10. Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson is the first defensive player on this list and the only Longhorn ranked in the top 15.
With the season approaching, Athlon Sports is taking a look at some of the best players in the nation within each conference. How did we come up with these rankings? Many factors were considered. Overall talent, production, level of competition, position importance and projected output in 2016 all factored into the rankings. These rankings reflect projection for 2016, not solely what players accomplished in 2015. Here’s a look at the top 35 players in the Big 12 for 2016:
Ranking the Big 12 Top 35 Players for 2016
1. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
The combination of Mayfield and coordinator Lincoln Riley helped to spark Oklahoma’s offense last season, guiding the Sooners to the Big 12 title and a berth in the College Football Playoff. Mayfield earned Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year honors after throwing for 3,700 yards and 36 scores and running for 405 yards and seven touchdowns in 2015. Mayfield is the catalyst for the dynamic Sooner offense and is one of the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy in 2016.
2. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Texas Tech
Mahomes guided Texas Tech’s high-powered offense to an average of 45.1 points a game in 2015. In 13 games, Mahomes passed for 4,653 yards and 36 scores and rushed for 456 yards and 10 touchdowns. But here’s the scary thought for defensive coordinators in the Big 12: 2015 was just his first year as the full-time starter. Mahomes should be even more dangerous (and productive) for coach Kliff Kingsbury in 2016.
3. Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma
Perine enters 2016 with his sights set on a third consecutive 1,000-yard campaign. As a freshman in 2014, Perine gashed opponents for 1,713 yards and 21 scores and posted another standout year (1,349 yards and 16 touchdowns) as a sophomore last year. Perine also still holds the FBS single-game rushing mark (427 against Kansas in 2014).
4. Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas
Jefferson wasted no time making an impact in his true freshman campaign last fall. He played in all 11 games for the Longhorns, recording 61 stops (seven for a loss), 2.5 sacks and one forced fumble. He was voted as the Big 12’s preseason Defensive Player of the Year in July and is primed for a breakout season as the leader on coach Charlie Strong’s defense.
5. Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State
Considering the uncertainty surrounding Baylor’s offense after the firing of coach Art Briles, let's give Rudolph a slight edge over Baylor's Seth Russell for the No. 3 spot. Rudolph struggled with a foot injury late in the 2015 campaign but still threw for 3,770 yards and 21 scores last season. With J.W. Walsh out of eligibility, Rudolph is poised for his best all-around year in Stillwater.
6. Seth Russell, QB, Baylor
Russell’s 2015 season was cut short by a neck injury in late October. But prior to the injury, Russell was one of the nation’s best quarterbacks, throwing for 2,104 yards and 29 scores in seven appearances. Russell is back to full strength and will participate in fall practice. His return is a huge boost for coordinator Kendal Briles and new coach Jim Grobe.
7. James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State
Big plays were the story of Washington’s 2015 season. He averaged 20.5 yards per catch – most by any Big 12 receiver with at least 40 receptions – and recorded 1,087 yards and 10 scores on 53 overall catches. Washington led all FBS receivers with four catches of 70 yards or more last fall. He will be the go-to target for quarterback Mason Rudolph and should produce another 1,000-yard season.
8. Jordan Thomas, CB, Oklahoma
Zack Sanchez garnered most of the attention in Oklahoma’s secondary last season, but Thomas was just as effective. The Texas native should be one of the nation’s top corners in 2016, as he returns to Norman with 25 career starts and intercepted five passes last year in his first as a full-time starter.
9. Charles Walker, DL, Oklahoma
While the “starter” label doesn’t mean too much with line rotations for any defense, it’s notable Walker did not record an official start last season, yet earned second-team All-Big 12 honors. In 12 appearances, Walker recorded 36 stops (10 for a loss), six sacks and one forced fumble. He should be one of the nation’s top defensive linemen in 2016.
10. Josh Carraway, DL, TCU
With James McFarland back from injury and teaming with Carraway off the edge, TCU’s defensive end combination is one of the best in the nation. Carraway earned first-team All-Big 12 honors last year after recording 11.5 tackles for a loss and nine sacks.
11. KD Cannon, WR, Baylor
Cannon had arthroscopic knee surgery in July but is on track to return to full strength by Baylor’s opener. He’s slated to become Baylor’s go-to target after catching 50 passes for 868 yards and six touchdowns in the No. 2 role to Corey Coleman in 2015.
12. Elijah Lee, LB, Kansas State
Lee is one of the nation’s most underrated performers at linebacker and returns for his junior campaign as the anchor for a strong Kansas State front seven. Lee led the Wildcats with 80 stops last year and also recorded five sacks, three interceptions and one forced fumble in 13 games.
13. Tyler Orlosky, C, West Virginia
West Virginia’s offensive line could be the best in the Big 12 this year. Orlosky is the anchor for coach Dana Holgorsen, as the Cleveland native enters his senior season with 29 career starts and ranks as an Athlon Sports third-team All-American for 2016.
14. Kyle Fuller, C, Baylor
Baylor’s offensive line was hit hard by departures this offseason, with Fuller the lone returning starter for coach Jim Grobe. Fuller has 26 career starts and earned second-team All-Big 12 honors last year.
15. Mike Warren, RB, Iowa State
Warren delivered a breakout year in his Iowa State debut, rushing for 1,339 yards and five scores in 2015. He also led the Big 12 with six rushing plays of 40 yards or more.
16. Connor Williams, OL, Texas
17. KaVontae Turpin, WR, TCU
18. Denzel Johnson, S, TCU
19. Orlando Brown, OL, Oklahoma
20. Steven Parker, S, Oklahoma
21. Dante Barnett, S, Kansas State
22. Shock Linwood, RB, Baylor
23. Joe Mixon, RB, Oklahoma
24. Noble Nwachukwu, DL, West Virginia
25. Will Geary, DL, Kansas State
26. Jordan Willis, DL, Kansas State
27. Davante Davis, CB, Texas
28. Allen Lazard, WR, Iowa State
29. Taylor Young, LB, Baylor
30. Jordan Sterns, S, Oklahoma State
31. Holton Hill, DB, Texas
32. Patrick Vahe, OL, Texas
33. Travin Howard, LB, TCU
34. Jordan Evans, LB, Oklahoma
35. James McFarland, DL, TCU