The Pac-12 is officially returning, with a vote on Thursday making way for a seven-game schedule that will begin on November 6th. One of the conference’s leading 2021 NFL Draft prospects will not be returning, however. Stanford Cardinal offensive tackle Walker Little will not return in 2020, sources tell Pro Football Network NFL Draft Analyst and Insider Tony Pauline, and will instead focus on the 2021 NFL Draft.

Little, who opted out of the 2020 college football season just two weeks ago, will not follow a growing trend and opt back in, choosing to prepare for the NFL Draft in April. Pauline broke the news on the Draft Insiders Podcast, in advance of the Pac-12 officially announcing a return to fall action.

“I was told today that even if the Pac-12 kicks off in the fall, Walker Little will not opt back in as a lot of other players have. He’s in Florida training for the 2021 NFL Draft Combine.”

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Walker Little makes interesting decision to declare for the NFL Draft

It’s an interesting decision for the Stanford left tackle.

Little missed the entire 2019 college football season after suffering a serious knee injury in the Cardinal’s opening game against Northwestern. He made the decision to return to Stanford instead of declaring for the 2020 NFL Draft, stating at the time that he wanted to earn his degree and help the Cardinal return to winning ways after a losing season.

Related | Pauline’s 2020 Pac-12 Preseason Summer Scouting Preview

Although the 2020 season would have given Little the opportunity to solidify his NFL Draft stock, with analysts divided as to his ranking in the 2021 offensive tackle class, Pauline reports that Little is already held in high regard by NFL scouts and the decision to opt out will not impact his NFL Draft stock at all.

“I don’t think it really matters that much. I would have liked to see him play three or four games, but the vibe that I’m getting from scouts is that he’s going to be a first-round pick.”

Little’s career trajectory suggests that he would be worthy of a first-round pick

The standout star of Episcopal High School was a four-year starter, a five-star recruit, the top-ranked recruit in the whole of Texas, and the consensus best offensive tackle in the 2017 recruiting class.

Little became the first true freshman to start for Stanford since 2000 by making his debut against San Diego State and starting nine games for the 9-4 Cardinal. His impact on the run game was apparent, with Bryce Love setting a single-game record of 301 rushing yards against Arizona State the game after Stanford recorded their second-highest ever single-game rushing total against UCLA.

An ESPN Freshman All-American and PAC-12 Freshman Co-Offensive Player of the Year in 2017, Little continued his growth in 2018 with All Pac-12 First Team honors. As Stanford transitioned to a more air-based offense, Little helped protect K.J. Costello to the second-highest passing yards total in school history as the Cardinal recorded another nine-win season.

His absence was noticeable in 2019, as Stanford struggled to a 4-8 season. The offense averaged just 21.7 points per game, ranking 108th out of the 130 FBS teams. The accolades and the impact clearly add up to make Little a valuable asset to an offense.

What is it that makes him a first-round talent in the eyes of the NFL?

The first thing you notice about Little is, ironically, his size. At 6’7″, he towers over most defensive lineman and this is the first thing that Pauline eludes to when offering his evaluation.

“He’s big, he’s fluid, he moves well on his feet. He’s very good on the second level, with the ability to slide out laterally and pick up pass rushers. That is a premium on draft day. That is what Walker Little has shown in his shortened career at Stanford, especially in 2018.”

Pauline also alluded to the fact that Little is a “natural left tackle” as one of the reasons that NFL scouts rate him as a first-round prospect. Despite this, there is a huge disparity between individual analysts as to where they see Little being taken in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Why is opinion so divided?

Firstly, with just two years of game experience behind him, Little is a little raw. There are clearly aspects of his game that he needs to work on. An extra year of college football would have provided the opportunity to work on those and provide answers to the questions that people have over his ability.

One of those questions is about his ability to pass protect in the NFL. The NFL has become more orientated towards lighter, speedier pass rushers that bend around the edge well and Little has often looked a liability facing speed rushers.

That was particularly apparent against Notre Dame, as were his struggles against any form of inside pressure. The NFL has never been more pass-happy than it is now, and although Little may be one of the best run blockers in college football, he’ll need to show a marked improvement in his ability to pass protect to succeed in the league.

When the 2021 NFL season kicks off, it will have been two years since Little walked on to a football field. When he next does, it may well be as a first-round NFL Draft selection.

“It seems pretty confident, right now, that Walker Little will end up in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft,” noted Pauline.

Oliver Hodgkinson is an NFL Draft and NFL analytics contributor for the Pro Football Network. You can follow him on Twitter at @ojhodgkinson.