A deep collection of individual talent is set to return for college football’s 2016 season. Three of the top five Heisman finalists are back, including Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. The returning group of options at running back is especially deep, as LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook will be a factor in the Heisman race after finishing inside of the top 10. On defense, ends Myles Garrett (Texas A&M) and Jonathan Allen (Alabama) rank as the top returning defenders for 2016, with defensive backs Jourdan Lewis (Michigan) and Desmond King (Iowa) not far behind.
The 2016 season is still months away, but the early entry deadline has passed and a better picture of how all 128 teams stack up has started to form. Using career accomplishments so far, projected performance next season, positional importance and overall talent, Athlon Sports has ranked the top 50 players for 2016. This list will look a little different by the fall, but there is no shortage of big names coming back or players poised to take a huge step forward next season.
Just outside of the top 50: North Carolina RB Elijah Hood, Tennessee LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Oregon OT Tyrell Crosby, Oklahoma CB Jordan Thomas, Notre Dame QB Malik Zaire, Texas LB Malik Jefferson, Missouri DE Charles Harris and Alabama LB Tim Williams
College Football's (Early) Top 50 Players for 2016
50. Arden Key, DE, LSU
Athletic edge rusher recorded five sacks and 41 tackles as a true freshman in 2015. Key will only get better with another offseason to work under line coach Ed Orgeron.
College Football Podcast: Early 2016 Top 25 Breakdown
49. Eddie Vanderdoes, DL, UCLA
Vanderdoes opened 2015 as one of the Pac-12’s top defensive linemen but suffered a season-ending knee injury in opener.
48. Jalen Tabor, CB, Florida
Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and safety Keanu Neal entered the NFL Draft, but Florida’s secondary has a good foundation in place for 2016. Tabor led the defense with 14 pass breakups and intercepted four passes in 2015.
47. William Likely, CB, Maryland
Likely is only 5-foot-7, but the Florida native is one of the Big Ten’s top cover corners and an outstanding return man.
46. Quin Blanding, S, Virginia
Blanding has started all 24 games since he stepped onto campus in 2014 and has over 100 tackles in back-to-back seasons. The junior should continue to thrive under new coach Bronco Mendenhall.
45. Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama
Foster is known for his ability to deliver punishing hits, but the Alabama native is Crimson Tide’s top returning tackler (73) and should have his best overall year in 2016.
44. O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
Howard finished 2015 on a high note, catching five passes for 208 yards and two scores in the national championship. Is this the year Howard is more involved with Alabama’s passing attack? Coach Nick Saban seemed to hint that direction after the win against Clemson.
43. Isaiah Ford, WR, Virginia Tech
Ford quietly caught 75 passes for 1,164 yards and 11 scores last season and averaged a healthy 15.5 yards per catch. He was the only ACC receiver to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards last year.
42. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
Despite a suspect offensive line, Barkley managed to rush for 1,076 yards and averaged 5.9 yards per carry – as a freshman. He should see even more opportunities in 2016.
41. Jordan Whitehead, S, Pittsburgh
Whitehead was an impact freshman for coach Pat Narduzzi last season, recording 109 tackles (six for a loss), one interception and six pass breakups. But Whitehead’s impact wasn’t just on the defensive side. He rushed for 122 yards and two touchdowns and caught two passes for 10 yards in a limited role on offense.
40. Anthony Walker, LB, Northwestern
Is Walker one of the nation’s most underrated players? We think so. In 13 games last season, Walker recorded 122 tackles (20.5 for a loss), four sacks and one forced fumble.
39. DeMarcus Walker, DE, Florida State
Florida State’s defense received good news at the draft deadline when Walker announced his intentions to return in 2016. Line coach Brad Lawing helped mold Walker into one of the ACC’s top linemen last year, as he recorded 10.5 sacks and 15.5 tackles for a loss.
38. Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State
McDowell is an emerging star for coach Mark Dantonio and the new leader of Michigan State’s defensive line after Shilique Calhoun expired his eligibility. McDowell recorded 13 tackles for a loss in 2015.
Related: Early Big Ten Predictions for 2016
37. Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M
Kirk was one of the nation’s top freshmen in 2015 and a dynamic all-purpose threat for the Aggies. He averaged 137.6 total yards per game and led Texas A&M in catches (80), receiving yards (1,009) and receiving touchdowns (seven).
36. Jalen Hurd, RB, Tennessee
Tennessee’s backfield is set with Hurd and Alvin Kamara returning next season. Hurd finished 2015 with three consecutive 100-yard efforts and ran for 1,288 yards and 12 scores last year.
35. Wayne Gallman, RB, Clemson
The “Wayne Train” is a perfect complement to quarterback Deshaun Watson and Clemson’s high-powered passing attack. Gallman ranked second in the ACC in rushing yards (1,527) last season.
Related: Early ACC Predictions for 2016
34. Budda Baker, S, Washington
Led by the Pac-12’s top returning defense, Washington is a team on the rise for 2016. Baker and teammate Sidney Jones anchor a secondary that allowed only nine passing scores in Pac-12 games last season. Baker earned All-Pac-12 first-team honors after recording seven pass breakups and 49 stops in 2015.
33. Pat Elflein, OG, Ohio State
With four starters gone from last season’s offensive line, Elflein is slated to be the leader of the Buckeyes’ front five in 2016. The senior has started every game over the last two seasons.
32. Jamal Adams, S, LSU
Adams enters his junior season as a player on the rise after recording 67 tackles, four picks and six pass breakups in 2015. Expect Adams to thrive under new coordinator Dave Aranda.
31. Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State
Former five-star recruit is one of three returning starters for Urban Meyer’s defense. McMillan led the team with 119 stops last season and should be even better as a junior in 2016.
30. Devonte Fields, LB, Louisville
Fields was an impact transfer for coordinator Todd Grantham in 2015. The former TCU defender recorded 11 sacks, led the team with 22.5 tackles for a loss and forced two fumbles.
29. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
Rosen was the nation’s top freshman quarterback last season, throwing for 3,669 yards and 23 scores in 13 starts. The California native has some turnover among his supporting cast for 2016. However, Rosen is only going to get improve with more snaps. No. 29 on this list might be too low by August.
Related: Early Pac-12 Predictions for 2016
28. Luke Falk, QB, Washington State
Falk is the catalyst behind Washington State’s high-powered passing attack, earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors after throwing for 4,561 yards and 38 scores last year.
27. Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami
Kaaya’s numbers dipped last season after a standout freshman campaign (3,198 yards, 26 TDs). But the junior quarterback should thrive under new coach Mark Richt, and the Hurricanes’ supporting cast returns nearly intact. Expect Kaaya to rebound next fall.
26. Derwin James, S, Florida State
James is just starting to scratch the surface on his potential. In 13 appearances as a true freshman last season, the Florida native recorded 91 stops (9.5 for a loss), 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. He should challenge for All-America honors in 2016.
25. Mitch Hyatt, OT, Clemson
Hyatt’s emergence as a true freshman was huge for Clemson’s offensive line in 2015. He started all 15 games for the Tigers and played the most snaps by a true freshman in school history. He will protect the blindside for quarterback Deshaun Watson once again next season.
24. Roderick Johnson, OT, Florida State
Johnson is the most experienced lineman for the Seminoles and leads the way for Florida State’s ground attack behind Dalvin Cook. Johnson started all 13 games for coach Jimbo Fisher last season and won the ACC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy, which is awarded to the best blocker in the conference.
23. Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma
Perine suffered an ankle injury that required surgery in the Orange Bowl loss to Clemson, but he should be at full strength by the start of the 2016 season. Perine has rushed for 3,062 yards over the last two years at Oklahoma.
22. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Texas Tech
Mahomes is a dynamic playmaker for coach Kliff Kingsbury, and after throwing for 4,653 yards and 36 scores, the junior returns for his second full season as the team’s No. 1 quarterback. Mahomes topped at least 300 passing yards in 10 out of 13 games in 2015.
Related: Early Big 12 Predictions for 2016
21. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia
Chubb could rank higher on this list, but how quickly will he return to full strength after a season-ending leg injury against Tennessee? Chubb was well on his way to having an All-America season prior to the injury, rushing for 747 yards and seven touchdowns in six games.
20. Chad Kelly, QB, Ole Miss
Kelly is the SEC’s top returning quarterback for 2016 and a big reason why the Rebels could push for a spot among the top 10 in some preseason polls. In his first year at Ole Miss, Kelly threw for 4,042 yards and 31 scores and rushed for 500 yards and 10 touchdowns.
19. Greg Ward, QB, Houston
Ward is the top player from the Group of 5 ranks and a dark-horse Heisman contender for 2016. In 14 games last season, Ward threw for 2,828 yards and 17 touchdowns and led the Cougars with 1,108 rushing yards and 21 scores.
18. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
Amari Cooper left big shoes to fill in Tuscaloosa in 2015. However, Ridley’s emergence certainly eased a lot of concerns about the receiving corps. As a true freshman, Ridley grabbed 89 catches for 1,045 yards and seven scores.
Related: Early SEC Predictions for 2016
17. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, USC
After catching 54 passes as a freshman in 2014, Smith-Schuster was picked by many to have a breakout year in 2015. The California native certainly lived up to those expectations and more, ranking fourth nationally with 1,454 receiving yards in 14 games. USC will have a new starting quarterback next fall, but Smith-Schuster should be one of the top receivers in the nation.
16. Jabrill Peppers, DB, Michigan
Peppers is an emerging star for the Wolverines. In 12 games last season, Peppers recorded 45 stops (5.5 for a loss) and 10 pass breakups. But the defensive side of the ball wasn’t the only area where Peppers made an impact. He played limited snaps on offense, rushing for 72 yards and two scores and catching eight passes for 79 yards.
15. Adoree Jackson, CB, USC
Jackson is one of the best overall athletes in the nation and a player that can impact the game in all three areas for coach Clay Helton. In 14 games last season, Jackson recorded 35 tackles, one interception and eight pass breakups. He also averaged 23 yards per kickoff return, averaged 10.5 yards on punt returns and returned two punts for touchdowns. Jackson showcased his explosive playmaking ability on offense by averaging 15.3 yards per catch (27 overall receptions) last season.
14. Seth Russell, QB, Baylor
A neck injury ended Russell’s 2015 season in late October. However, prior to the injury, Russell was one of the nation’s top quarterbacks. In seven starts, he completed 119 of 200 passes for 2,104 yards and 29 scores. Russell will face competition from Jarrett Stidham for the starting job this offseason.
Related: Early Top 25 for 2016
13. Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee
New coordinator Bob Shoop is tasked with taking Tennessee’s defense to the next level, and the former Penn State and Vanderbilt signal-caller has plenty of pieces to work with. Barnett has wreaked havoc against offensive lines over the last two seasons, recording 20 sacks and 33 tackles for a loss in 26 appearances.
12. Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama
Robinson has started all 29 games in his Alabama career and is on track to have his best overall season as a junior next fall. Should be a high first-round draft pick in 2017.
11. Desmond King, CB, Iowa
The Hawkeyes’ lockdown cover man turned down the NFL for one more season with the Hawkeyes. King was one of the Big Ten’s top overall defenders in 2015, recording 72 tackles, eight interceptions and 13 pass breakups.
10. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon
It was easy to overlook Freeman’s season with Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Derrick Henry, Ezekiel Elliott and Dalvin Cook garnering most of the national attention. However, Freeman finished fourth nationally in rushing yards (1,836) and recorded at least 100 yards in 11 out of Oregon’s 13 games.
9. Jourdan Lewis, CB, Michigan
Lewis emerged as one of the nation’s best cornerbacks last season and was a second-team All-American by Athlon Sports. In 13 appearances, Lewis recorded 52 tackles (3.5 for a loss), one forced fumble, two picks and 20 passes defended.
8. J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
There’s no quarterback controversy in Columbus in 2016. The Buckeyes are Barrett’s team, and the junior should resemble the quarterback that accumulated 3,772 yards and 45 total scores in 2014.
7. Jonathan Allen, DE, Alabama
A’Shawn Robinson is off to the NFL and Jarran Reed expired his eligibility, but the Crimson Tide’s defensive line won’t miss much of a beat with Allen returning for his senior year. Allen recorded 14.5 tackles for a loss and 12 sacks in 15 games last season.
Related: Early Top 25 for 2016
6. Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
Garrett’s athleticism and explosiveness off the edge is a nightmare matchup for opposing offensive tackles. In two seasons with the Aggies, Garrett has recorded 24 sacks and 33.5 tackles for a loss. Expect Garrett to take another step forward in his development with another offseason to work under coordinator John Chavis.
5. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
The addition of coordinator Lincoln Riley and Mayfield’s return to the field after sitting out 2015 after a transfer from Texas Tech were two of the driving forces behind Oklahoma’s run to the Orange Bowl. Mayfield threw for 3,700 yards and 36 scores and ranked third on the team with 405 rushing yards. Top receiver Sterling Shepard has expired his eligibility, but Mayfield is due for another big reason under Riley’s direction.
4. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
Cook ranks No. 4 on this list, but we wouldn’t argue if you wanted to rank the rising junior at No. 3 or even No. 2. Despite missing one game due to injury and dealing with hamstring and ankle ailments for part of the season, Cook rushed for 1,691 yards and 19 scores.
3. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
McCaffrey’s prolific 2015 campaign showed why the Colorado native is the top all-purpose player in the nation and one of the favorites to win the Heisman in 2016. McCaffrey averaged 276 all-purpose yards per game and set a new FBS single-season record with 3,864 all-purpose yards. Additionally, McCaffrey was the only FBS player to lead his team in rushing and receiving yardage.
2. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
Fournette is college football's most-talented running back and led the nation by averaging 162.8 rushing yards per game in 2015. The New Orleans native was held under 100 yards only twice and his 1,953 rushing yards are the most in a season by a LSU player.
1. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
Watson was 14-1 in first full season as Clemson’s starter, finished third in the Heisman Trophy race and nearly guided the Tigers to a national championship win over Alabama. Not bad, right? But here’s the scary part for the rest of college football – Watson could be a better overall player in 2016. With receiver Mike Williams returning from injury, the Tigers will have more weapons in their arsenal, and Watson is poised to take the next step in his development as a quarterback. He’s the favorite to win the Heisman next season.