College redshirting is on the decline, and the NFL draft could be a primary reason why.
That, at least, is how al.com's Mike Herndon sees it, and some of the numbers are definitely supportive. The premise is simple enough: as more and more college underclassmen leave school early for the NFL draft -- particularly the rise in third-year sophomores joining the exodus -- college coaches are better off playing their top freshmen than holding them back. The clock on players leaving for the NFL early begins ticking after high school, whether they redshirt or not. Think Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans -- two major college stars last year who both redshirted in 2011 and entered the draft as third-year sophomores with a combined four years of NCAA eligibility left on the table.
Herndon notes that half the teams in the SEC last year redshirted less than 10 players, and that Alabama has gone from redshirting 18 of 28 signees in 2009 to just nine of 24 last year.
That said, a college freshman is either ready to help a team or not, regardless of what his future potential might be. College practice fields are covered with young players who might have the physical attributes to be drafted one day, but lack either the technique or enough understanding of the game or a particular scheme to be of immediate help. Mental mistakes are costly, and college coaches can only live with so many of them in the name of nurturing potential into production.
Any of those factors, along with disciplinary or injury issues, can also render a player's track to the NFL stagnant from one year to the next. College coaches can see NFL potential in freshmen, but that's no crystal ball when it comes to when some of them might be fit to enter the NFL draft. A lot of those who might have been redshirted in a different era are getting on the field now in roles that are easier to handle, such as special teams or specific substitution packages.
Nevertheless, the trend is to get more freshmen on the field.